joseph epstein’s literary eduction

331x500xsledge_a_literary_education_cover.jpg,qitok=ICN3crSx.pagespeed.ic.diUvvineelJohn S. Sledge at Virginia Quarterly Review:

On the page, Epstein aspires to be one of the “laughing skeptics” and mostly succeeds. He is mistrustful of “large ideas, and especially idea systems,” but his touch is light, and he dishes out the bons mots without meanness or acerbity. One may not always agree with his judgments, but they are rendered with art and wit. For example, his definition of a “middlebrow” is “anyone who takes either Woody Allen or Spike Lee seriously as an artist.” Contemporary poetry is “slightly political, heavily preening, and not distinguished enough in language or subtlety of thought to be memorable.” He likes Henry James (though his enthusiasm for The Princess Casamassima strikes me, a student of James myself, as somewhat unusual), Willa Cather, and Ralph Ellison. Held in low regard, “second- or third-rate writers,” are Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Jack Kerouac, and Adrienne Rich.

In his essay “What to Do about the Arts?” (1995), originally published inCommentary, Epstein relates the story of how, after Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, he was contacted by a British journalist for an opinion about the now-late poet and memoirist Maya Angelou. The man was surprised when Epstein said that he had no opinion about Angelou because he didn’t read her and knew no one who did.

more here.