Literately Speaking: Essays on the Art of Writing

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We are living, as Joseph Epstein notes in "Life Sentences," in a time less and less literary, when that once-invoked "General Reader" is likely to be at the multiplex or a video-game arcade. The literary essay, then, might seem metaphorically homeless, sleeping in doorways and cadging cigarettes from passersby. To be sure, there are critics scribbling, but many of them, especially in the academic race-gender-class tent, are as readable as the contents list on a snack food.

For those, however, to whom literary oxygen is vital, a new Epstein collection is a sustaining joy. This is Mr. Epstein's fourth volume of literary essays (plus four collections of familiar essays). If he is not the most engaging practitioner of the form, he is near the top of a short list. (As a dreary asterisk, Mr. Epstein recently was booted by the politicized panjandrums of Phi Beta Kappa's quarterly, The American Scholar, after 22 years as editor, supposedly for not playing the diversity game sufficiently in selecting contributors.)

The appeal of these essays, in addition to a style that congenially melds the colloquial and the erudite, is in Mr. Epstein's catholicity of interest. The pieces range from writers of timeless appeal such as Montaigne, to lesser luminaries and the interestingly evanescent - Ambrose Bierce in the former niche, drama critic Kenneth Tynan and poet Elizabeth Bishop in the latter. The book also includes essays on the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Theodore Dreiser and the Austrian novelist Robert Musil.

A conspicuous quality of an Epstein essay is intellectual generosity. Though he can be critically devastating - on, for instance, a recent biographer of poet Philip Larkin who is as intent on demonstrating how cantankerous, if not far worse, his subject was than in exploring his work - the ad hominem barb is not the Epstein mode.

His essays often provide a fresh lens. One might suppose that the critical mill has ground F. Scott Fitzgerald finely enough. But of that dimmed star, Mr. Epstein writes that despite the disasters of his personal life, Fitzgerald was a man of remarkable charm, and what made him a considerable artist "was that he was able to get this charm into his writing." He continues, "In even the least of his stories one finds the magic, the fine touches, that seem to heighten life's possibilities."

What makes Fitzgerald of enduring interest is his "great theme: loss." In his best fiction, Fitzgerald posed the contradictions that "remain at the heart of not only American life but, all human life . . . where classic optimism and yearning are countered by the tragic truth that, as he once put it, `the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.'"

Mr. Epstein is sharp in his appraisal of John Dos Passos, whose critical cloak has not so much gotten tattered as ripped from his back. …