From Publishers Weekly
"What is his story?" asks essayist Epstein ( Plausible Prejudices ) about each person profiled in his third collection of essays, providing revealing looks at writers and thinkers of assorted repute. Many of the pieces explore the circumstances that led some, like Carl Sandburg, to reach a peak of fame in their lifetime and yet fall from it after their death; some honor those, like Italo Svevo, who gained recognition only late in their careers. Other essays reflect on how fated proclivities can shape a career, as with the prolif-ic screenwriter/novelist/playwright/journalist Ben Hecht, whose ability to turn phrases kept him, according to Epstein, from writing in earnest about what really haunted him. Although only a couple of the pieces--a remembrance of Sidney Hook, a meditation on Henry James--generate the emotion and charm of Epstein's familiar essays, each has the courtliness and measured idiosyncrasy that are hallmarks of his writing. The book pleases in its balance of subject choices and in its respect for the individuality of human ways and human lives.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
Epstein's third book of literary essays strikes a less polemical note than either Partial Payments (1989) or Plausible Prejudices (1985). Here, the American Scholar editor concentrates on writers for whom he feels a certain affinity, and proves an expert literary portraitist--if not a very dynamic critic. Epstein allows his interest in biography to overdetermine some of these pieces--his comments on a writer's work can seem perfunctory and mundane. At his best, he offers insights into a writer's career as evidence of ``the literary life,'' in which ``the experience of books has been integral with the experience of life.'' Epstein's notion that endless reading leads to ``skepticism about general ideas, systems, and theories'' pays off in appreciative portraits of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sidney Hook, and Sydney Smith. The author successfully draws attention to the neglected work of Italo Svevo, who created a masterpiece against all odds; to Desmond McCarthy, always on the verge of greatness; and to Maurice Baring, who deserves better than Edmund Wilson's faint praise. The most polemical piece here is a well-argued defense of Mencken against the charge of anti-Semitism. Cautionary tales are offered in fair-minded profiles of educational maverick Robert Hutchins, ``hack genius'' Ben Hecht, and once-overrated poet Carl Sandburg. Epstein's heroes include few surprises--George Orwell and Henry James--but his ``affinity'' for William Hazlitt seems based on nothing more than that both he and Hazlitt have been accused of writing ungrammatically, in a ``take-no-hostages'' style. In fact, Epstein's paean to those guardians of the language, Fowler and Gowers, includes a glaring lapse in grammar, as well as some of the very usages Fowler warns against. Epstein is a curious combination of tummler and Anglophile, leading to odd shifts in diction. His work lacks the wit and elegance of fellow New Criterion contributor Bruce Bawer (The Aspect of Eternity, p. 632), who otherwise shares the same commitment to common sense and readability. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.