Joseph Epstein (writer)

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Joseph I. Epstein (born January 9, 1937 in Chicago) is an essayist, short story writer, and editor, and, from 1974 to 1998,[1] the editor of the Phi Beta Kappa Society's The American Scholar magazine. He graduated from Senn High School in Chicago just above the lower quarter of his class, and shortly thereafter arrived the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.[2]

He received a B.A. from the University of Chicago and was a lecturer at Northwestern University from 1974 to 2002 and is an Emeritus Lecturer of English at the University. Mr. Epstein edited and introduced Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers. Author of Divorced in America, Familiar Territory, Ambition, The Middle of My Tether, Plausible Prejudices, Once More Around the Block, Partial Payments, and A Line Out for A Walk (essays); Pertinent Players; With My Trousers Rolled (1995); editor, The Norton Book of Personal Essays (1996); The Goldin Boys (stories);Life Sentences (1997) and Narcissus Leaves the Pool (essays-5/1999), Snobbery (essays, 2002) and Fabulous Small Jews (short stories, 7/2003).[3]

From 1997–1998 he was the President of the Commonwealth Club of California.[4] He is a Contributing Editor at the weekly Standard and a long-time contributor of essays and short stories to The New Criterion and Commentary. In 2003, he was awarded a National Humanities Medal by the National Endowment for the Humanities.[5]

During his many years as editor of The American Scholar, Epstein was known for his well-regarded essays, signed "Aristides", which led off each issue. Epstein's removal as editor in 1998 was controversial.[6] Epstein later said that he was fired "for being insufficiently correct politically".[7]

Epstein's writing is provocative and has frequently met with controversy. His essay, Who Killed Poetry?, published in Commentary in 1988, has generated much discussion in the literary community decades after its publication.[8]

In 1970, Epstein wrote an article for Harper's Magazine called "The Struggle for Sexual Identity" that was widely criticized for its perceived homophobia, although Harper's editor Midge Decter defended it as an "elegant and thoughtful account".[9] Among other things, Epstein wrote, "if I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth, because I consider it a curse, in a literal sense." He ended the article with

There is much that my four sons can do in their lives that might cause me anguish, that might outrage me, that might make [me] ashamed of them and of myself as their father. But nothing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual.[9][10]

The response of gay writers and readers to Epstein's piece, including a "sit-in" at Harper's by members of the Gay Activists Alliance, has been identified as a significant turning point in the gay rights movement of the early 1970s.[11][12]

Epstein addressed the minor controversy in a piece in the weekly Standard entitled, ″The Unassailable Virtue of Victims: On the rise of Hillary Clinton and other underdogs, in which he outlines his chief points of the Harper's essay which were that the understanding of the origins of human sexuality were not well understood, that false tolerance of homosexuals was common, and for many societal and other reasons homosexuality could make for a difficult life, and that given a choice, owing to the complications of homosexual life, most people would prefer their children to be heterosexual.

Controversy over whether or not someone would or could choose to be homosexual is prevalent both in homosexual communities, and the larger culture, and the matter is not yet settled by scientific research.[13][14][15]

Epstein's body of work reveals his fascination with common everyday situations, amusing trends and small pleasures that he brings to his reader's attention. He also specializes in essays that shed light on the musings and ideas of famous and forgotten authors and writes short stories that prominently feature the city of Chicago and the characters that have populated his 70 years as an observer of the city.[original research?][citation needed]

William F. Buckley, Jr., in his review of Epstein's 2002 essay collection, Snobbery: The American Version, called Epstein "perhaps the wittiest writer (working in his genre) alive, the funniest since Randall Jarrell."[16] A writer for The Forward called him "perhaps the smartest American alive who also writes well."[7]

Selected works[edit]

Essay collections and books[edit]

  • Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility (1974)
  • Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (1979)
  • Ambition: The Secret Passion (1980)
  • Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays (1983)
  • Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing (1985)
  • Once More Around the Block: Familiar Essays (1987)
  • Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives (1988)
  • A Line Out for a Walk: Familiar Essays (1991)
  • Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary Life (1993)
  • With My Trousers Rolled: Familiar Essays (1995)
  • Life Sentences: Literary Essays (1997)
  • Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays (1999, paperback 2007)
  • Snobbery: The American Version (2002)
  • Envy (2003)
  • Friendship: An Exposé (2006)
  • Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide (2006)
  • In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage (2007)
  • Fred Astaire (2008)
  • Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (2011)
  • Essays in Biography (2012)
  • Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (with Frederic Raphael) (2013)
  • A Literary Education and Other Essays (2014)

Short story collections[edit]

  • The Goldin Boys: Stories (1991)
  • Fabulous Small Jews (2003)
  • The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories (2010)

Short stories[edit]

  • "My Brother Eli", appearing in The Best American Short Stories 2007 pp. 85–112
  • "Beyond the Pale", appearing in The Best American Short Stories 2009 pp. 41–59


In his book Snobbery: The American Version Epstein crafted the word "virtucrat" which he defined as "any man or woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain. ...[who] is in no doubt that virtue is on his side. What he believes to be the goodness of his political views fills him with a sense of his own intrinsic goodness."[17] The virtucrat judges people not on "your private life but only your public one", not on whether you are sexually promiscuous, but "will nail you for not having his opinion on Israel or the environment. He is a moral snob."[17] The virtucrat is less interested in proving that their positions are right, but that their morality that led them to these positions is superior, "and he cares in the only way that counts, with all his heart. And the main point is that he cares a lot more than the rest of us—greatsouled, large-hearted, perhaps unconscious but nonetheless very real snob that he is."[17]

Epstein used the word in other works such as Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit and the word has been picked up by other commentators on culture and society.[18][19][20][21]


  1. ^ Ted Widmer, "The Scholar at 75: An Educated Guess, The American Scholar, Winter 2007.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Appearances on C-SPAN
  5. ^ "Awards & Honors: 2003 National Humanities Medalist: Joseph Epstein", National Endowment for the Humanities (accessed 2012-07-24).
  6. ^ Cynthia Grenier, "Conservatives on the move", Washington Times, January 3, 1998 (via HighBeam Research, subscription required).
  7. ^ a b Joshua Cohen, "Uncle Joe the Exquisite", The Forward, September 28, 2007.
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b Larry P. Gross & James D. Woods, The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics (Columbia University Press, 1999), ISBN 978-0231104463, p. 595. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  10. ^ Christopher Bram, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (Hachette Digital, 2012), ISBN 978-0446575980, p. 142. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  11. ^ Larry P. Gross, Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America (Columbia University Press, 2001), ISBN 978-0231119535, pp. 43ff. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  12. ^ David Ehrenstein, "Sexual Snobbery: The Texture of Joseph Epstein", LA Weekly, August 30, 2002.
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ William F. Buckley, Jr., "Who's he?" The New Criterion, September 2002. Epstein's humorous response to Buckley's accolade, and to its mention in this Wikipedia article, is at: Joseph Epstein, "At My Wit's End", Standpoint, January 2009.
  17. ^ a b c Joseph Epstein (2002). Snobbery: The American Version. Houghton Mifflin Company. 
  18. ^ Richard Grayson (October 21, 1997). "Inner-City Troubles Won't Respond to Nostalgia; Who's a Virtucrat?". The New York Times. 
  19. ^ Ronald Cohen. "True Virtue". The New York Times. 
  20. ^ Joseph Epstein (June 1, 1998). "A Wordsmith's Lament". 
  21. ^ Algis Valiunas (April 1, 2014). "The Rise and Rise of Doris Kearns Goodwin". 

External links[edit]