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(Oddly he barely alludes to Bellow anywhere in these pages …) He admits he was a terrible student, showing no early signs of the refined, almost WASPy bookishness that later marked (and continues to mark) his long career.
“Civilized” in the sense of measured and refined — I will be quoting him in due course — but also in the sense that reminds us that civilization is not only the transformation of our primary instincts and emotions, but is also at times a finely crafted grate held up in front of them.
The eight parts of gather essays spanning nearly a half-century of Epstein’s literary advocacy.
And this is where the problems — or let me say, speaking as a reviewer, “disagreements” — arise.
For Epstein is completely tethered to a core narrative about our culture, and from this everything follows, including the denunciations that start to deaden in their repetitions.
“Sometime during high school or college every student swims through E. White's 'Once More to the Lake.' In this book Robert Root explores not simply the smooth surface of White's prose, but he wanders the shoreline, showing how White became an essayist, tracing White's wanderings as a paragrapher and columnist for the Robert Root traces the literary career of the best-known and most widely admired American essayist of the twentieth century.
Root explores the milieu in which White began writing the "Notes and Comments" section of and puts into perspective the influence of popular "colyumists" like Don Marquis and Christopher Morley on the tone and form of White's work as a "paragrapher." He examines White's persistent disaffection with the demands and limitations inherent in his "Comment" pieces for where his "One Man's Meat" feature produced his most enduring essay, "Once More to the Lake," and took the segmented column form to new levels of accomplishment. White greatly expanded the limits of literary nonfiction and in the process introduced elements and methods that helped produce the contemporary segmented or disjunctive essay.
The second part of the book, in personal terms the richest, is entitled “Memoir” and gives a portrait in overlapping narrations of Epstein’s coming of age in Chicago.
Born in 1937, he hit his American-boy stride early, ducking out from his middle-class Jewish home-life to sample from the fringier side of things, getting himself to cathouses as soon as he could drive a car, consorting with fast-track betting types, in every way a proto-Bellow character.
To title this one the idea of a literary education, concludes by laying out Epstein’s manifestly essayistic take on life: A literary education teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases […].
It provides an enhanced appreciation of the mysteries and complexities of life that reinforces the inestimable value of human liberty — liberty especially of the kind that leaves us free to pursue that reality from which we all live at a great distance and run the risk of dying without having known. But that he should then openly deplore Emerson remains a mystery.