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Joseph Epstein (writer)

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Joseph Epstein
Born (1937-01-09) January 9, 1937 (age 87)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Pen nameAristides
OccupationWriter, editor, lecturer
Notable awardsNational Humanities Medal
SpouseBarbara Maher[1]

Joseph Epstein (born January 9, 1937)[1] is an American writer who was the editor of the magazine The American Scholar from 1975 to 1997. His essays and stories have appeared in books and other publications.

Early life and education[edit]

Epstein was born to Maurice and Belle Epstein in Chicago, Illinois on January 9, 1937.[1] He graduated from Senn High School and attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.[2] He served in the U.S. Army for two years as an enlisted soldier from 1958 to 1960, and received a bachelor of arts in absentia from the University of Chicago in 1959.[1][3][4]


Epstein's essay "Who Killed Poetry?", published in Commentary in 1988,[5] generated discussion in the literary community for decades after its publication.[6]

Admirers of Epstein's writings include Jacques Barzun, Philip Larkin, Tom Wolfe, William Barrett, Sidney Hook, Herman Wouk, Gordon S. Wood, Norman Podhoretz, John Gross, Dan Jacobson, Edward Shils, Saul Bellow, Gene Siskel, George Will, William F. Buckley Jr., Philip Kaufman, John Podhoretz, Frederic Raphael.[7][8]

In 2024, Epstein published an autobiography titled Never Say You've Had a Lucky Life: Especially If You've Had a Lucky Life.[9]

Visiting adjunct lecturer (1974–2002)[edit]

From 1974 to 2002, Epstein was a visiting adjunct lecturer in literature and writing at Northwestern University.[1][10][11]

Editor of The American Scholar (1975–1997)[edit]

In 1975, he began serving as the editor of The American Scholar, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa society, and wrote for it under the pseudonym "Aristides".[1]

During the 1980s and 1990s, Epstein received increasing criticism for commentary widely regarded as anti-feminist, as well as for his "one-sided" management of the editorial page. He compared feminist scholars at various times to "pit bulls" and "dykes on bikes".[12] In 1991, he was the subject of an op-ed by Joyce Carol Oates calling for his resignation: "It is an embarrassment that Joseph Epstein should have been its editor for so many years. His resignation is long overdue."[12] He met with further criticism for giving cultural conservatives as Gertrude Himmelfarb and Dinesh D’Souza a platform in the journal, and his failure to offer space for their adversaries.[13]

In 1996, the Phi Beta Kappa senate voted to remove Epstein as editor of The American Scholar at the end of 1997.[14] The decision was controversial and Epstein later claimed that he was fired "for being insufficiently correct politically."[14][15] Some within Phi Beta Kappa attributed the senate's decision to a desire to attract a younger readership for the journal.[14] Upon Epstein's firing, a former president of Phi Beta Kappa said: "He has been driving people crazy for years. What has changed is that more and more senators were elected who are uncomfortable with the totally one-sided views in the journal."[13]

In 2024, Epstein wrote, "The official version given out by Phi Beta Kappa for my cancellation — in those days still known as a firing — was that the magazine was losing subscribers and needed to seek younger readers. Neither assertion was true. In fact, I was canceled because I had failed to run anything in the magazine about academic feminism or race." He added that he had tried to keep the magazine "apolitical".[16]


Article on homosexuality (1970)[edit]

In September 1970, Harper's Magazine published an article by Epstein called "Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity"[17] that used the word "nigger" to describe being gay and was criticized for its perceived homophobia.[18] 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."[18][19] Gay activists characterized the essay as portraying every gay man the author met, or imagined meeting, as predatory, sex-obsessed, and a threat to civilization.[20] In the essay, he says that, if possible, "I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth," a statement that was interpreted by gay writer and editor Merle Miller as a call to genocide.[21] A sit-in took place at Harper's by members of the Gay Activists Alliance.[22][20]

In 2015, Epstein wrote an article for The Weekly Standard in which he mentioned the Harper's article. He wrote, "I am pleased the tolerance for homosexuality has widened in America and elsewhere, that in some respects my own aesthetic sensibility favors much homosexual artistic production. My only hope now is that, on my gravestone, the words Noted Homophobe aren't carved."[23]

Article on Jill Biden (2020)[edit]

In a December 2020 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, he suggested that Jill Biden stop using the academic title "Dr.," which she earned as a Doctor of Education, saying that it "feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic."[3] The piece, which opens by addressing her as "Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo," was criticized on Twitter by several public figures.[24] He also critiqued the title of Biden's dissertation, Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students' Needs, calling it "unpromising."[25] Biden later responded during an interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, indicating that she was surprised at the tone of the article and at Epstein's use of the word "kiddo" to address her, stating that she was proud of her doctorate, for which she had worked hard.[26]

Northwestern University and its English department (where he worked as a visiting adjunct lecturer from 1974 till 2002) each released a statement condemning Epstein's opinion. The University wrote, "Northwestern is firmly committed to equity, diversity and inclusion, and strongly disagrees with Mr. Epstein's misogynistic views," and noted that it was nearly 20 years since his employment there.[11][27][28] The university also removed Epstein's page from its website, where he had been listed as an emeritus lecturer of English.[29]

Awards and recognition[edit]

Selected works[edit]

  • Divorced In America: Marriage In an Age of Possibility (1975)
  • Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (1979)
  • Life Sentences: Literary Essays (1980)
  • Ambition: The Secret Passion (1981)
  • 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 & Their Lives (1989)
  • The Goldin Boys: Stories (1991)
  • A Line Out for a Walk: Familiar Essays (1991)
  • Pertinent Players: Essays on The Literary Life (1993)
  • With My Trousers Rolled: Familiar Essays (1995)
  • Anglophilia, American Style (1997)
  • Narcissus Leaves the Pool (1999)
  • Snobbery: The American Version (2002)
  • Envy (2003)
  • Fabulous Small Jews (2003)
  • Alexis De Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide (2006)
  • Friendship: An Expose (2006)
  • In A Cardboard Belt: Essays Personal, Literary and Savage (2007)
  • Fred Astaire (2008)
  • The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff & Other Stories (2010)
  • Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (2011)
  • Essays In Biography (2012)
  • Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of Internet (2013) (co-authored with Frederic Raphael)
  • A Literary Education & Other Essays (2014)
  • Masters of the Games: Essays & Stories on Sport (2014)
  • Where Were We: The Conversation Continues (2015) (co-authored with Frederic Raphael)
  • Frozen In Time: Twenty Stories (2016)
  • Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays (2016)
  • Victimhood: The New Virtue (2017)
  • Charm: The Elusive Enchantment (2018)
  • The Ideal of Culture: Essays (2018)
  • Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits (2020)
  • The Novel, Who Needs It? (2023)
  • Familiarity Breeds Content: New and Selected Essays (2024)
  • Never Say You've Had a Lucky Life: Especially If You've Had a Lucky Life (2024)


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Epstein, Joseph 1937- (Aristides)". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2020-12-13.
  2. ^ Birnbaum, Robert (31 August 2003). "Joseph Epstein - Identity Theory". Identity Theory.
  3. ^ a b Epstein, Joseph (December 11, 2020). "Opinion | Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D." The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved December 12, 2020.
  4. ^ Epstein, Joseph. "Whose Country 'Tis of Thee?", Commentary (magazine), November 2011. Retrieved December 23, 2023.
  5. ^ Epstein, Joseph (1988-08-01). "Who Killed Poetry?". Commentary.
  6. ^ Novak, David (6 December 2012). "The Man Who Killed Poetry: Joseph Epstein And His Essays". Contemporary Poetry Review.
  7. ^ Who's He by William F Buckley Jr., New Criterion (2002)
  8. ^ Fame by Joseph Epstein, in Commentary (October 2020)
  9. ^ Reviewed by Dwight Garner, "A Culture Warrior Takes a Late Swing", The New York Times, April 22, 2024.
  10. ^ "Joseph Epstein: Department of English - Northwestern University". 2020-12-12. Archived from the original on 2020-12-12. Retrieved 2020-12-13.
  11. ^ a b Shepherd, Kate; Bellware, Kim (December 14, 2020). "As critics blast a 'misogynistic' op-ed on Jill Biden, a Wall Street Journal editor blames 'cancel culture'". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 15, 2020.
  12. ^ a b Coughlin, Ellen K. (September 4, 1991). "'American Scholar' Editor Draws Fire for Remarks About Feminists". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 16 December 2020.
  13. ^ a b "Conservative Editor of "The American Scholar" Is Fired". The Chronicle of Higher Education. August 16, 1996. Retrieved 16 December 2020.
  14. ^ a b c Mahler, Jonathan (28 February 1998). "Fresh Vision for an Intellectual Journal: Diversity, Brevity, Even a Cover Picture". The New York Times.
  15. ^ Cohen, Joshua (25 September 2007). "Uncle Joe the Exquisite". Forward.
  16. ^ Epstein, Joseph, "Writing My Autobiography", First Things, April 2024
  17. ^ "Homophobia in Mainstream Media". mudcub.com.
  18. ^ 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, page 595. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  19. ^ Christopher Bram, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (Hachette Digital, 2012), ISBN 978-0446575980, page 142. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  20. ^ a b Ehrenstein, David (August 30, 2002). "Sexual Snobbery: The Texture of Joseph Epstein". LA Weekly.
  21. ^ Greenhouse, Emily (11 October 2012). "Merle Miller and the Piece That Launched a Thousand "It Gets Better" Videos". The New Yorker.
  22. ^ Gross, Larry P. (2001). Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America. New York City: Columbia University Press. p. 43ff. ISBN 978-0231119535.
  23. ^ Epstein, Joseph (18 May 2015). "The Unassailable Virtue of Victims: On the rise of Hillary Clinton and other underdogs". The Washington Examiner.
  24. ^ Castronuovo, Celine (2020-12-12). "Wall Street Journal draws backlash over op-ed urging Jill Biden to drop 'doctor' title". The Hill. Retrieved 2020-12-12.
  25. ^ Levenson, Michael (12 December 2020). "An Opinion Writer Argued Jill Biden Should Drop the 'Dr.' (Few Were Swayed.)". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 December 2020.
  26. ^ "Jill Biden was blindsided by Wall Street Journal call to drop 'Dr.' title: 'It was really the tone of it'". USA Today. 19 December 2020. Retrieved 21 December 2020.
  27. ^ "University statement on Joseph Epstein". news.northwestern.edu. Retrieved 2020-12-13.
  28. ^ Sarraf, Isabelle (December 13, 2020). "NU condemns Joseph Epstein's WSJ op-ed". The Daily Northwestern. Retrieved December 13, 2020.
  29. ^ Singh, Namita (14 December 2020). "Joseph Epstein wiped from university website after backlash over 'sexist drivel' Jill Biden column". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2022-06-14. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  30. ^ Metz, Vicki (May 22, 1988). "On Honors List, Many Noted Names". New York Times. Retrieved December 15, 2020.
  31. ^ "Joseph Epstein". National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  32. ^ "JBooks.com - Interviews and Profiles: Praise, Money, and Self-Education". jbooks.com.

External links[edit]