Joseph Epstein’s new book about snobbery1 ends up being a book about Joseph Epstein, which is perfectly okay—provided one is Joseph Epstein. Another’s book about snobbery, displaying the author’s biography, his likes and dislikes, suspicions, affections, affectations, crotchets, would not guarantee against a reader’s strayed attention. There isn’t the slightest risk of this happening upon reading Epstein’s book, because he is perhaps the wittiest writer (working in his genre) alive, the funniest since Randall Jarrell.
“My snobbery,” he sighs, “is of a different kind, the kind I think of as intellectual snobbery.”
Epstein sets out dutifully to tell us what a snob is—what he does, thinks (about nubile objects of snobbery), cultivates, disdains. He accomplishes this by conveying everything that Epstein is not. He is not ignorant, certainly not a Philistine, and he is perfectly capable, even if some effort is required, of transcending snobbish inclinations, though not always willing to do so. He is dogged in pressing home on the reader that he, Joseph Epstein, is human, experiencing, and giving way to, occasional temptations if not exactly to snobbery, to snobbish practices. He invites us to smack our lips over Joseph Epstein, Jaguar owner, the young man with the Burberry coat who has now a $300 fountain pen. But his way of telling you about such vulnerabilities is so fetching you want to reach through the confessional screen and embrace the sinner. And anyway, all that stuff about incidental luxuries doesn’t really matter. “My snobbery,” he sighs, “is of a different kind, the kind I think of as intellectual snobbery.”
Here is the deal on Name Dropping, one of twenty-four subjects he gives a chapter to (others: Jobs; Waspness; Class; Taste; Status; Clubs and clubability; Intellect; Politics; Celebrityhood; “Fags and Yids;” the Dining Table; and “With-it-ry”). He begins by coming clean on his own indulgences. We are to know that the young Joe Epstein bruited it about that he knew personally two champion boxers and also a comedian (Morey Amsterdam), to be sure, a comedian “whom I don’t think it would be imprecise to describe as a third banana.”
My name-dropping fell off until I became an editor of a scholarly magazine [The American Scholar] that had an editorial board with some highly droppable names from the worlds of art, intellect, and scholarship: Lillian Hellman, Jacques Barzun, and Diana Trilling are a representative sample. Later I was made a member of the National Council on the Arts, which caused business in this line to pick up substantially. At quarterly meetings in Washington, I met and spent a fair amount of time with Celeste Holm, Robert Joffrey, Roberta Peters, Martha Graham, Toni Morrison, Robert Stack, Helen Frankenthaler, and other men and women who are, as the English say, rather namey. Some I came to like, some I thought greater bores than are found on a howitzer, some I had no feeling about at all. By now most of those still alive probably have little or no memory of me.
That opening whets the appetite, which will be completely gratified. Epstein goes on to tell us tantalizingly about further adventures with droppable names.
“I had a three-year friendship in the late 1970s with Saul Bellow [Three years? What happened? You will run into Bellow elsewhere in the book.] I was once taken to a Chicago Bulls basketball game—in the $350- a-seat front-row section [Invite Professor Epstein to a basketball game? Expect to seat him in the royal box.]—by Gene Siskel, whose fame came from his television show on the movies with Roger Ebert [This is cunning. We are supposed to know who Siskel and Ebert are. Is it snobbish to plead ignorance? Certainly it would be snobbish to pretend not to know]. Before the game he introduced me to Oprah Winfrey, who seemed, like many another early middle-aged woman, tired after a tough day at the office. [This is what the true cosmopolitan would bother to notice in Oprah Winfrey: That she looks tired.] I had coffee and dessert with Dick and Lynne Cheney at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington [Dessert? Did they call him over only after the main course?] and Lynne Cheney at another time had a light dinner at my wife’s and my apartment before giving a talk at Northwestern University. [Why was the dinner light? Why tell us it was light? Is a snobbish purpose being served? Why not have a special dinner for Lynne? Or would that be … slavish?] I was once the only guest on The Phil Donahue Show, in connection with a book I wrote about divorce [Tantalus here: his own divorce?], a ninety-minute show that felt just a tad longer than a bad fiscal quarter. In connection with the same book, I was the subject of a most unreal article in People. [People has never more deftly been shown to the foot of the table.] I’ve dined with five Nobel Prize winners, three in economics, two in physics. I went to high school with the film director Philip Kaufman, who remains a friend. One of Monica Lewinsky’s attorneys is another friend of mine. I had a whitefish dedicated to me and Pierre Boulez by a great though too-little-known chef named Ben Moy. I occasionally receive nice notes from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I’ve never, alas, slept with, or known anyone who slept with, Rita Hayworth [The “alas” here is an uncommon common touch in Epstein.] With that, I believe I had got most of the name-dropping out of my system.”
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That’s it. Epstein was off to another running start. And while doing this, the character and personality of the snob-taxonomist are artfully limned.
Plenary indulgence in hand, Epstein goes to town on his name-dropping virtuosos.
There is Picasso biographer John Richardson, title holder. Epstein quotes from Richardson’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. “I told Princess Margaret the story of Picasso’s quest for her hand.”
Epstein gives us the scene. Attending a music festival in Aix-en-Provence, Richardson was “longing for sleep, but, ‘unfortunately, Segovia, most revered of classical guitarists, had the room above mine, and was practicing for a concert later in the week.’ When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attempted to visit Chateau Castille, the house in France that Richardson lived in with his friend Douglas Cooper, Richardson is able to report Cooper’s delight in telling friends: ‘The Onassis woman tried to invade my house, but I sent her packing.’”
The whole idea of name-dropping is to bring up a personal encounter with someone whose name generates awe, curiosity, or a pang of envy. Something that a revealed historical familiarity with the two prize fighters and the failed comedian would no longer do, now that Joe Epstein had grown up and got around. We are reminded that a snob can only attain true satisfaction at the expense of others. If everybody knew Segovia, not many points could be had from complaining that his guitar next door kept you awake. If everybody has a fur coat, what, actually, does a fur coat then do for you? The only excuse for having one would be that it keeps you warm, even as a stretch limo allows you to stretch out your legs. Epstein goes on to capture perfectly the volatility of snobfare. John Sparrow, the warden of All Souls College, “used to save the letters of the poet Edith Sitwell, though she never saved his. But once he became warden of the prestige-laden All Souls, Miss Sitwell began saving Sparrow’s letters, at which exact point John Sparrow ceased to save hers.”
Snobbery is a recent phenomenon, however organic the appetites that foster it. We are informed that there are no snobs in Shakespeare, Dante, Aristophanes, or the Bible. The principal support system for snobbery came with caste, most rigid in Great Britain. In America we had Waspness. After that, wealth. But these infrastructures of snobbery are slipping away as we dither on about them. A nobleman in Great Britain becomes, more and more, simply that. As in “Henry Mortimer V.” The Waspocracy has all but disappeared as a class-identifying blood line, and rich people don’t any longer constitute a dominant class—there are too many of them. The public can envy the resources of the rich, but the rich can’t get to the head of any coveted line merely by touting their wealth.
Snobbery of opinion, on the other hand, is an undepletable reserve. Epstein revels in it. “Someone tells me that he thinks, say, Death of a Salesman is a great play, and my mind goes—click—foolish opinion, betraying a want of intellectual subtlety, a crudity of sensibility.” Here Epstein acknowledges the infirmity of inverse snobbery. A sentient snob is naturally attracted away from popular enthusiasms. “Twenty-five years or so ago, I thought Humphrey Bogart a swell actor; the Bogart cult killed it for me. I mock—though never to their faces—people I know who buy what I think crappy modern art, pretending to enjoy it. If lots of what I take to be indiscriminate, and therefore non-discriminating, people take something up I can almost always be relied upon to put it down, at least in my mind.” There is danger in opposing categorically that which is popular, and awful danger in assuming that the discriminating eye will always make out the superior—“[E]ntire ages have vastly undervalued individual works, often whole bodies of visual art, whose majesty is now thought to be beyond argument.”
The young man who cherished not so much the Burberry coat as the ownership of it is knowingly submissive to many social norms.
Professor Epstein gives a few keys to sound deportment in life in the whirls of snobbery and affectation. To begin with, one should be cautious about language. “The title ‘professor’ always convey[s] a slight comic tinge, and was also conferred on the man who played the piano in the bordello.” Much of necessary accommodation to modern life is done by declining to court singularity, while declining also to disavow what is singular. “Otto Kahn, the successful New York financier, whose assimilationist efforts caused him to be described as ‘the flyleaf between the Old and New Testament,’ once told a friend, ‘You know, I used to be a Jew.’ ‘Really?’ the friend is said to have replied. ‘I used to be a hunchback,’ making the point that, even with vast financial and social resources, it is not so easy to de-Judaize oneself.”
The young man who cherished not so much the Burberry coat as the ownership of it is knowingly submissive to many social norms. “In my own dress and manner, I would like to think myself existing in a permanent state of ironic conformity to the decorum of the day.” He quotes Harold Brodkey. “We want to be dressed, and we want others to be dressed somewhat similarly, partly for the democracy of it, and partly so that we are speaking a halfway common language.” But important that when you do this, you should know that you are doing it. The irony permits you to genuflect to the queen.
Accommodation with convention requires us to go along even with major delusions, most prominent of them, opines Epstein, that college education does no more for American youth than supply them the satisfaction of a college degree. Professor Epstein’s own guess is that not more than two percent of those who attend college are lit up, intellectually and culturally, by the experience. “Most people come away from college, happy souls, quite unscarred by what has gone on in the classroom. The education and culture they are presumably exposed to at college never lay a glove on them. This is the big dirty secret of higher education in America.”
Well … Joseph Epstein’s standards are exacting and a bit idiosyncratic, but his marksmanship is keen. The book is rich with barbs. “Outside America, the Susan Sontag act never quite took flight. She never caught on in France. And why, after all, should she have, doing as she did an imitation of a French intellectual when the French had more than enough of the real thing on hand.” The New York Review of Books is Sontag’s habitat. Speaking of which, “If one wanted to study intellectual snobbery in America through a single institution, one could scarcely do better than peruse the contents of and contributors to that biweekly journal.” The Review has made the “snobbishly brilliant connection between high culture and radical politics, making left-wing views seem integral to high- brow culture. The Anglophilic role in the magazine was [always] large; some issues had more English than American contributors. A joke went the rounds that when one of the journal’s two principal editors went to London, he was treated as if he were the Viceroy of India home on furlough.”
And Epstein is very wise, and penetrating. Good taste, he summarizes, is really “good sense.” Good sense in friendship, “represented by tact, generosity, and above all kindness; in possessions, by comfort, elegance, utility and solidity; in art by beauty, harmony, and originality, in culture, by a discriminating tolerance for tastes at odds with one’s own.” (This tolerance does not extend to Death of a Salesman.) “The other way—taking pleasure in cutting oneself away from the mass by the criterion of ostensible good taste, and putting down others by the standard of what one takes to be one’s own exquisite taste is, of course, the way of the snob.”
Snobs should read this book. Also, anti-snobs. Also those who wonder whether they are more like twentieth-century man, or, actually—deep down—more like Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Dante, and Christ.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 1, on page 67
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