Best Essayist 21st Century

Best Essayist 21st Century-69
It is therefore with great pleasure that I note Epstein’s latest book, .As one would guess from such sources, Epstein is culturally conservative, but happily not a scold.

It is therefore with great pleasure that I note Epstein’s latest book, .As one would guess from such sources, Epstein is culturally conservative, but happily not a scold.

One such essay in particular, “A Case of Academic Freedom” (1986), is a cri de coeur against a specific instance of political correctness at Northwestern University, where Epstein taught English for decades, but it is lengthy, arcane, and dated to boot.

Happily, it’s the exception rather than the rule here.

To be locked in alone with tens of thousands of books and no obligation other than to follow my own whims was an unforgettable experience.

During the course of the evening, I plucked beautifully bound first editions by John Ruskin, Henry Adams, Henry James, and Edith Wharton and lovingly admired their gorgeously illustrated, foxed pages.

Of especial interest are Epstein’s eyebrow-raising revelations about his personal past.

Though recently castigated for a piece in which he mourned the demise of the “WASPocracy” in American life (not included in this collection), Epstein led a youth that was about as far from that world as can be imagined.Like most essay collections, this one is best appreciated in measured doses, a few pieces at a sitting.Marathon readers will find that the selections generally hang together well, though there is some repetition of anecdote and phrase.His first prostitute was Leona, “truly striking, biracial,” and a heroin addict.“The lush air of corruption surrounding women like Leona was always at least as enticing as the sex,” he reveals, “which in fact tended to be quick and, to put it mildly, perfunctory.” In one of the earliest essays in the book, “Memoirs of a Fraternity Man” (1971), originally published in , Epstein revisits his collegiate self at the University of Illinois.Little yellow bulbs illuminated the aisles, and the air was suffused with the smell of old paper and leather.A narrow staircase enclosed in wire mesh ran through the center, with an electric dumbwaiter alongside. Founded by the Jesuits in 1830, Spring Hill College was the first Catholic college in the Southeast. One of my mini-jaunts was a night spent in the Thomas Byrne Memorial Library on Mobile’s Spring Hill College campus.Epstein’s impatience with such things as student evaluations (“useless intrusions into university teaching by the political tumult of the 1960s”), political correctness, and declining standards will no doubt have old-school types cheering.Unfortunately, some of these selections are too narrowly focused to hold much interest for those outside the ivory tower.


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