Joseph Epstein (writer)

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Joseph Epstein (born January 9, 1937 in Chicago) is an essayist, short story writer, and editor. From 1974 to 1998,[1] he was the editor of the Phi Beta Kappa Society's The American Scholar magazine.


Epstein was born in a Jewish family in 1937. He graduated from Senn High School in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.[2] He received a B.A. from the University of Chicago. He was a lecturer at Northwestern University from 1974 to 2002 and is an Emeritus Lecturer of English there.[3]

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.[4]

During his many years as editor of The American Scholar, Epstein was known for his essays, signed "Aristides", which led off each issue. Epstein's removal as editor in 1998 (following a 1996 vote of the Phi Beta Kappa senate) was controversial.[5] Epstein later said that he was fired "for being insufficiently correct politically".[6] Some within Phi Beta Kappa attributed the senate's decision to a desire to attract a younger readership for the journal, whose circulation had declined from 40,000 to 25,000 during Epstein's tenure.[7]

Epstein's writing is provocative and has frequently met with controversy. His essay "Who Killed Poetry?", published in Commentary in 1988,[8] has generated much discussion in the literary community decades after its publication.[9]

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".[10] Among other things, Epstein wrote that he considered homosexuality "a curse, in a literal sense" and that his sons could do nothing to make him sadder than "if any of them were to become homosexual."[10][11] The response of gay writers and readers to Epstein's piece included a landmark New York Times Magazine essay by Merle Miller (subsequently reprinted as the book On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual),[12] as well as a "sit-in" at Harper's by members of the Gay Activists Alliance, and has been identified as a significant turning point in the gay rights movement of the early 1970s.[13][14] In 2015 Epstein addressed the controversy in a The Weekly Standard article entitled ″The Unassailable Virtue of Victims: On the rise of Hillary Clinton and other underdogs", in which he states that he is "pleased the tolerance for homosexuality has widened in America and elsewhere" and that his "own aesthetic sensibility favors much homosexual artistic production".[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."[6]


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."[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]

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


  1. ^ Ted Widmer, "The Scholar at 75: An Educated Guess, The American Scholar, Winter 2007.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Awards & Honors: 2003 National Humanities Medalist: Joseph Epstein", National Endowment for the Humanities (accessed 2012-07-24).
  5. ^ Cynthia Grenier, "Conservatives on the move", Washington Times, January 3, 1998 (via HighBeam Research, subscription required).
  6. ^ a b Joshua Cohen, "Uncle Joe the Exquisite", The Forward, September 28, 2007.
  7. ^ Jonathan Mahler, "Fresh Vision for an Intellectual Journal: Diversity, Brevity, Even a Cover Picture", The New York Times, February 28, 1998.
  8. ^
  9. ^ David X. Novak, "The Man Who Killed Poetry: Joseph Epstein And His Essays", Contemporary Poetry Review, December 6, 2012.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Christopher Bram, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (Hachette Digital, 2012), ISBN 978-0446575980, p. 142. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  12. ^ Emily Greenhouse, "Merle Miller and the Piece That Launched a Thousand 'It Gets Better' Videos", The New Yorker, October 11, 2012.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ David Ehrenstein, "Sexual Snobbery: The Texture of Joseph Epstein", LA Weekly, August 30, 2002.
  15. ^ ″The Unassailable Virtue of Victims: On the rise of Hillary Clinton and other underdogs", The Weekly Standard, May 18, 2015.
  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. ^ 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]