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Awards & Honors: 2003 National Humanities Medalist

Joseph Epstein

"The personal essay is, in my experience, a form of discovery," Joseph Epstein writes. "What one discovers in writing such essays is where one stands on complex issues, problems, questions, subjects. In writing the essay, one tests one's feelings, instincts, and thoughts in the crucible of composition."

A distinguished essayist, Epstein served as editor of The American Scholar from 1975 to 1997, contributing essays under the name Aristides. In his introduction to The Norton Book of Personal Essays, which he edited, Epstein calls the personal essay "the freest form in all of literature. A form that is itself intrinsically formless, the personal essay is able to take off on any tack it wishes, building its own structure as it moves along, rebuilding and remaking itself--and its author--each time out." Epstein himself has taken on subjects that range from the joys of owning a cat to the art of napping to thoughts on aging and the changing times. His essays are known for being personal and familiar, and scholarly yet accessible.

In a recent essay on W.H. Auden, published in The Hudson Review, Epstein writes, "Ought a poet, within his poems, to deal so directly with such opinions, ideas, issues? Everyone will remember the famous reply to Degas, who was trying to write poems, when asked Mallarmé where he got his ideas. 'But Degas,' Mallarmé wisely replied, 'poetry is not written with ideas but with words.' This deceptively simple remark, like so many of Mallarmé's remarks, has great weight and subtlety, speaking about the dangerousness of ideas to poetry. One may end up with ideas but one should never start out with them."

Epstein has published several collections of essays, and has been a regular contributor to Commentary, The New Yorker, Harper's, The New Republic, New York Review of Books and The National Standard. His essays have been included in the annual editions of The Best American Essays. He has also written two collections of short stories--the most recent is Fabulous Small Jews--and several full-length, nonfiction books, including the bestseller Snobbery: The American Version.

Epstein says he became interested in writing at the University of Chicago, where he attended college. "It was an astonishingly serious place," he says. "You could read anything in a serious way." He tried in his early twenties to write stories but "drifted into essays."

Later in life he went back to try his hand at fiction in the form of the short story. "In my forties I also found I could write publishable stories," he says. "I'm not saying good, but publishable. I've now written thirty-five short stories. If I could write another twenty during the rest of my life, I'd be happy."

Epstein taught writing and literature at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, from 1974 to 2002. It was there that he gained respect for young writers of today. "I taught the fundamentals of prose style at the undergraduate level and found some astonishingly good writers," he says. "I never told them you must drop everything and do this. I had a great regard for their talent. There are many contemporary authors I admire, including David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Foer."

Other works by Epstein include: Divorced in America (1974), Ambition (1980), Goldin Boys (1992), The Norton Book of Personal Essays (editor, 1997), Life Sentences: Literary Essays (1997), Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals (1997), and Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays (1999). Goldin Boys was named a New York Times notable book of the year.

Joseph Epstein has high hopes for the written word and for future writers in America. "To paraphrase Mark Twain," he says, "reports of the decline of written culture have been greatly exaggerated."

By MR