Joseph Epstein has made some news recently, mainly as a target of the cancel culture. The English Department at Northwestern University, where he holds emeritus status, erased him from its website and did all but lapidate him for his crimes against wokery.
This story is the least of reasons for one to become familiar with Joseph Epstein. He is among the best American essayists—a stylist who seems effortlessly witty, generous, and graceful in both small and large matters.
I came to know his writing when he served as the editor of The American Scholar, from 1975 to 1997. He turned that once stodgy magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa society into a delight for many, though he riled some readers with his caustic comments on academic feminism and for granting a platform to conservative scholars. Joyce Carol Oates published a letter in the New York Times in 1991 calling Epstein an “embarrassment” to the publication and urging his resignation. PBK kicked him out six years later, and replaced him with Anne Fadiman, who brought a bien-pensant sensibility that restored The American Scholar to dull respectability.
Epstein, however, continued to write essays and stories, and to publish one collection after another:
I list these titles of but a fraction of his 24 books in no particular order. Epstein’s pen, or typewriter, or word processor, or whatever instrument he employs seems inexhaustible. He has favorite themes running in the direction of preserving what’s best in our literary culture, but he plainly writes small. That is, he writes short essays and short stories, and if he ever descended to writing a proper book-length manuscript, I don’t know of it. Such a thing would be like a rose bush aspiring to grow to the height of an elm or a hemlock. Everything would be out of proportion. Epstein’s craft is ideally suited to the essay. He typically announces himself in the first sentence:
An idiot-savant, as is well-known, is a person with serious learning disabilities but gifted in a peculiar, usually extraordinary way, often mathematically or musically.
So begins “Susan Sontag, Savant-Idiot,” in his latest collection, Gallimaufry. The sentence works in antagonism with the title.
The object of all good literature,” thinks Sue Brown, a chorus girl and a character in P. G. Wodehouse’s novel Summer Lighting, “is to purge the soul of its petty troubles.
How better to open an essay on the genial Wodehouse? Epstein plants us immediately in that writer’s irreverent world.
I don’t know that we should call the latest assault on Epstein’s reputation a significant event in his life. He has been ostracized by the witless Left for over a generation and has sailed on unperturbed. Those who admire him—and we are many—love his writing no less. Perhaps the current fuss will succeed in introducing him to some new readers who take the loud anathemas against him as a recommendation—as well they should.
What happened? Epstein published a short essay in the Wall Street Journal advising Jill Biden to stop parading the title “Dr.” in front of her name. Mrs. Biden is no medical doctor, but the recipient of a doctorate in education. Custom has it that “Dr.” is typically reserved for those who graduated from medical school, completed their residencies, and hold some special knowledge about how to cure diseases and keep our bodies in good running order. When people who hold other kinds of doctoral degrees insist on calling themselves “doctor,” the rest of us smile and make note of their foolish pretension. When someone with an Ed.D. degree emphasizes the title “doctor,” the smile is thinner. This is a degree that more often than not signifies nothing in the way of real scholarship.
My apologies to those readers who have invested in the effort to climb that particular apple tree. If you are hearing this for the first time, it is no doubt painful. But perhaps it’s best to hear it once and for all. Your degree does not confer high status in academia or anywhere among the company of the educated. Perhaps you are the rare exception who labored to produce a dissertation that is steeped in history, philosophy, or science. Even so, it is lost in the vast wasteland of triviality that constitutes the desert of Ed.D. dissertations.
Epstein let this cat out of the bag. Worse, he did so in reference to the wife of the putative president-elect. The Furies descended on him.
The Wall Street Journal commendably stood its ground and refused to apologize for publishing Epstein’s truthful counsel. The English Department at Northwestern and other important upholders of current standards of etiquette delivered their curses and went away satisfied that the miscreant had been properly whipped. The rabble of publications denouncing Epstein’s article and the Wall Street Journal’s decision first to publish and then to stand by it included The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Forbes, The Chronicle of Higher Education, CNN, and on and on. And many of these responses brought forth hundreds and then thousands of deliberations by readers and listeners.
To think that a single op-ed could elicit such an effluence of opinion and such a diluvium of print is to recognize that Epstein, who will turn 84 in January, has lost none of his touch. He knows how to get under the skin of the anointed opinionizers.
We at the National Association of Scholars are proud that we have published Joseph Epstein’s essays over the years in Academic Questions, and that he also graced Minding the Campus. He remains welcome at both whenever he chooses to publish with us, and we hope he will do so often. We re-published on Minding the Campus a defense of him by Hans Bader (first published on Liberty Unyielding), and I spoke in his favor to the Washington Times. But I wish I could do more to bring Epstein’s charms within reach of a generation that knows not Epstein except as the scourge of Jill Biden’s superciliousness.
“One of the reasons that nations go to war,” Epstein once wrote, “is that men like G. V. Cary, in immaculately setting out the subtleties of the semicolon, can carry out the daily work of civilization.” That was in an essay on the virtues of the usage experts Henry Watson Fowler (1885-1933) and Sir Ernest Gowers (1880-1966). Fowler and Gowers are still, I think, known to careful writers, but they are surely fading as the shadows creep over the weed-choked lawns of our civilization. Epstein elevates Fowler’s masterwork to a high standing indeed: “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is one of a shelf of fifty or so great books written in English in this century.”
That judgment, published in 1993, didn’t get Epstein into anything like the trouble that followed his aperçu on Jill Biden, but it was, in its way, just as barbed. Epstein was harpooning the permissive new grammarians who cheerfully welcome into English whatever sloppy, ignorant, and uncultured locutions they come across. Self-blinded to distinctions that make precise communication possible, they are the linguistic counterparts of border guards who cheerfully welcome those who arrive sans passport or visa. Their heedlessness is part of what leads today to all those ardent defenses of Jill Biden’s nomenclature.
In a book he self-effacingly titled Snobbery: The American Version, Epstein lays out his idea that snobbery is a “sense of false superiority.” This is, of course, what he stands accused of in knocking the titular hat off Jill Biden’s head. Reading the few lines from his essays that I’ve quoted one might rush to agree. Epstein does sound like someone who looks down his nose at some of his countrymen. The question is whether that expresses a “false sense of superiority.”
Just perhaps, it is a well-earned sense. Epstein himself comes from a humble background, laid forth modestly enough in his essay, “It Takes One to Know One.” He climbed his way into intellectual recognition, and like all climbers he takes some pride in the achievement. But he also grew to be someone who didn’t need the applause of listening senates. And the fineness of his essays testifies to his submission to the judgment of others—just not all others.