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"A hedonist with a bad conscience, he appears to have been put on ...
on November 2, 2014
Joseph Epstein's "Essays in Biography" is a compilation of the author's past articles, book reviews, memoriual essays, etc. At 564 pages of text, its breadth is revealed in the index, which stands at 38 pages Forty individuals are portrayed, beginning with George Washington. In this initial article Epstein begins by quoting from Lord James Bryce's "The American Commonwealth" on the presidency: "Besides, the ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrty." With this Epstein agrees, and goes on to deal with not Washington as a mediocrity but with him as a mystery. In doing so, he bombards us with quotations, as is Epstein's usual modus operandi. Further, he remarks "He appeared to impress all with whom he came into contact." This, along with Washington's probity, makes up Epstein's portrait of the man. And a solid but brief portrait it is. Other artcles are not as balanced. Some "biographies" are victim to Epstein's opinions--that of Saul Bellow is based on a review of his correspondence, and is mean spirited. Another example of this is his copy on Hugh Trevoe-Roper, titled "Arrogance Intellectual Division." Yet he generously admits to Trevor-Roper's brilliance and intelligence. Throughout this book are many striking comments: of Cyril Connolly,"A hedonist with a bad conscience, he appears to have been put on earth briefly to charm his readers and lengthily totorture himself.", More: of the Oxford don Maruice Bowra, he writes, "For a man with the reputation of an intellectual bully, Bowra was, as many bullies are,vulnerable and insecure." Readers may find many of these judgments high-handed. Yet they are well formed, as are so many of the portraits in this very readable book.