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The Greatest of These Is Love - In this wise book, America's finest essayist considers the implications of a change of heart.

Lee Congdon is professor of history at James Madison University. He writes regularly on modern literature and culture.
The American Version
Joseph Epstein
 Publisher:Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002
274 pp., $25.00

For a while in the late 1960s, I worked in Chicago as a (lowly) writer for Encyclopaedia Britannica. At the time, Joseph Epstein was one of the senior editors. Although I never had occasion to get to know him in his official capacity, I did sometimes run into him in the library or on the way out of the Michigan Avenue building, where the company maintained its offices. I wonder if you are not--just a little bit-- impressed? In two sentences, I let you know that I once rubbed elbows with a distinguished writer and wrote--never mind that my short entries never made it into print--for a prestigious reference work. Although I cannot be certain, I would be willing to wager that you, unfortunate reader, have not done either; I may therefore be able to raise myself in your estimation and satisfy myself that I am, if only in a small way, better than you.

If my name-dropping and "snob-jobbery" do not impress, remember that they are only two of the snobbish possibilities that Epstein examines in this witty but quite serious new book. A discriminating literary critic and a more than respectable short-story writer, he is famous primarily for his familiar essays. As editor of the American Scholar from 1975 to 1997, he delighted and, without ever being preachy, instructed readers by calling their attention to unexpected meanings in such everyday experiences as reading, napping, awaiting the mail, listening to music, following sports, or selecting a pen.

In his most recent, and perhaps finest, collection of familiar essays, Narcissus Leaves the Pool (1999), he wrote of aging, small irritations, talent (as opposed to genius), but also of the heart bypass surgery he was obliged to undergo. That surgery, he said, "has been a major event in my otherwise fairly quiet life, one that has changed me, decidedly, decisively, definitively." More than ever, he told an interviewer, "the idea that life is going to be over conditions almost everything I do." It is not that he has suddenly become serious--he has always been a deeply, though unoppressively, serious writer. But one detects more searching self-examination, almost as though he were preparing himself for an oral confession.

The spread of snobbery

One of the essays that Epstein included in Once More Around the Block (1987) begins with these words: "I don't mean to make anyone tense or otherwise edgy, but perhaps it is best you know at the outset that in me you are dealing with your basic language snob." That is a wonderful Epsteinian sentence. I found myself--while we are on the subject of confession-- nodding in agreement, smiling condescendingly at the thought of those pitiable folk who use nonwords such as supportive, parenting, and the ever-popular lifestyle, those who begin sentences with hopefully. I happen to know better, and that makes me superior to those whom CNN newsreaders would probably call the "verbally challenged"--or does it?

That is the question that Epstein asks us to consider in Snobbery: The American Version. Clearly he has looked into his own heart, the postoperative heart of which he wrote in Narcissus: "In more ways than one, my heart has been touched and I am not, and shall never again be, quite the same person." He has not been entirely pleased by what he discovered about that vital organ--namely, that it was pumping snobbery into his arteries. Snobbery, he has come to think, is no trivial matter nor something amusing, like a New Yorker cartoon. It is a base and cruel effort to lord it over others, a mark of ill breeding--the very indictment it brings against those considered to be inferior. "Everything," he observes, "is ill bred that does not seem to have behind it kindness, generosity, and a good heart [my italics]."

I emphasize the last words because Epstein wants to remind us that the heart is the seat of those elements of character by which a man is measured. He knows that the condition of one's heart is more important than the level of one's culture. "The snob's error," he writes further on, "is to put good taste before a good heart." And near the end of the book: "[The snob] cannot seem to understand that only natural distinction and genuine good-heartedness are what truly matter." This is a man on whom heart surgery was not lost.

Epstein's own snobberies are almost all intellectual and cultural. As we have seen, he has admitted--even boasted--that he is a language snob. He confesses, too, that when once he attended a "pop concert" given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he felt smugly superior to those in the audience who seemed not to appreciate the difference between (Henry) Mancini and Mozart. These are the besetting sins of a certain type of intellectual (you are to picture me with my head bowed). But there are other opportunities available to snobs of different shades. In fact, Epstein argues that since the decline of "the Waspocracy"--the white, Anglo Saxon social elite--snobbery has become ubiquitous. Severed from its connection with social class, it is free to attach itself to almost anything. We live in a democratized republic, and so, to borrow from Mao Zedong, let a hundred snobberies blossom.

The many faces of snobbery

I have already mentioned--and indulged in--name-dropping and job snobbery, but how about higher education snobbery? Why do those who can afford to do so want so much to send their children to an Ivy League school or, perhaps even better, to Stanford? It cannot be because they think such schools offer an incomparable education; the days when Harvard meant William James, George Santayana, or Alfred North Whitehead are long past. No, that for which they are willing to part with staggering sums of money is prestige and the advantages prestige offers, one of them the license to say that one's son or daughter, one's flesh and blood, is at Stanford. "Where," they usually cannot resist inquiring of their friends, "is yours?"

But school snobbery need not await high school graduation. There are many Americans, particularly in the Boston and New York areas, who cannot sleep at night until they receive word that their child has been admitted to the right preschool, the prerequisite for admission to the right elementary school, and on up the line. For those who must send their children to public schools, snobbish openings are fewer. The important thing is to see to it that one's child, one's hope, is selected for the "talented and gifted" program, and in that way demonstrates the quality of his genes. I recall being congratulated because my daughter, then in the fourth or fifth grade, was--together with 60 percent(!) of her class--among the gifted. I made no friend when I replied that I doubted that any of the children were gifted; Mozart and John Stuart Mill were gifted, I said, the rest of us do the best we can.

Very bold of me. But wasn't the remark an example of what Epstein calls "reverse snobbery," the chief mechanism of which "is to find out which way snobs are headed and then turn oneself in the opposite direction"? Very likely, I fear, because I would prefer not to be thought part of the herd. Fashionable ideas, in my view, are almost always to be rejected (in our time, fortunately, this is invariably the proper attitude to adopt). Fashion in clothes I ignore (you have only to ask my wife). In general I try not to be "with it." Epstein seems to share this ambition, but he sees that snobbery is adaptable--if it fails to corrupt us one way, it finds another.

Of course the snob also practices the art of what Epstein calls "with- it-ry." Every year the Washingtonian publishes lists of the famous who are currently "in" or "out." The editors know that the snob must never fall behind when it comes to knowing "in" people and "in" things such as restaurants, wristwatches, stocks, places to vacation, and places to retire. Lecturing, as he does, at a fairly prestigious midwestern university, Epstein knows about the ultimate in with-it-ry, the contention, insisted upon by au courant academics, that there is no such thing as a core identity or personality. Personality, like everything else, is open to endless possibility; one should therefore choose the most up-to-date design. As Epstein observes, however, "Integrity requires coherence of personality, which precludes constant change of one's personality to keep up with the spirit of the moment."

Epstein is particularly good on "the snob in politics," the person who never misses a politically correct beat, who listens to and believes everything he hears on National Public Radio, who "cares," always "deeply," about the homeless, the poor, minorities, women, and, of course, the environment. Such a person, you understand, rarely does anything; the sacrifice of time and self required to perform small, unpublicized acts of kindness at, say, hospitals and nursing homes are not for him. "Concern" earnestly expressed is enough to demonstrate that he is a "caring" person and hence morally superior. Moral superiority may be purchased at an even lower price by making a credible, or even a plausible, claim to victimhood. Any challenge to the pronouncements of a government-certified victim condemns the issuer to that Siberia reserved for the mean, the insensitive, and the heartless.

Siberia--or the outer darkness--will also do nicely for those who consume animal flesh, according to aggressive vegetarians (Hitler comes to mind), even when they speak not a word of condemnation. It is all in their self-assured attitude. As Epstein puts it, "It's the feeling that somehow he or she is living at a more advanced stage of culture, is more highly evolved than a mere carnivore such as oneself." He is death on food and wine snobbery--"a promiscuous little wine but ultimately responsible," he has been known to say to dinner guests as he uncorks a bottle--though here he seems to me too quick to throw Julia Child out with the bathwater. I remember the old "ideal, nonregional meals" he describes--shrimp cocktail, iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing, steak, baked potato, vegetable (definitely not al dente), pie or ice cream; but I would rather not.

Epstein is also, perhaps, overly defensive about North America when its culture, in the broad sense of its way of life, comes under fire from Europeans or Europhiles. When confronted with such criticism he finds himself "wanting to defend American culture to the last animal-fat- saturated fast-food french fry." An understandable reaction, particularly when one meets with an ever-so-superior European. It is natural to speak up for one's own, especially if those whom one loves seem, even if indirectly, to be victimized by the collateral critical damage. Still, on its merits, the critics have a pretty good case, as Epstein himself acknowledged in an essay entitled "Anglophilia, American Style." There he spoke of the superiority of British humor (Dudley Moore and the other comic geniuses of Beyond the Fringe), literature, education (Oxbridge), and intellectual life. At Britannica, he sided with editor-in-chief Sir William Haley, a distinguished Englishman who lost a struggle with "people who wanted a different, less literary, less elegant EB than he."


Epstein, in fact, never suggests that all cultures are equal or that all judgments of taste are simply matters of equally valid opinion. Nor does he ever fail to defend rigorous standards. Unlike too many, he never mistakes elitism for snobbery. "The distinction," he writes, "is that the elitist desires the best; the snob wants other people to think he has, or is associated with, the best. Delight in excellence is easily confused with snobbery by the ignorant." That is well said by a man who has devoted his working life to the writer's craft. The grateful product of an old-fashioned home, he was not born with a cultural spoon in his mouth. Dedication, sacrifice, hard work, and a talent--one is tempted to say a gift--have made him the writer's writer that he is.

As a result, Epstein has the greatest respect for those who have achieved something worthwhile by, as one used to say, applying themselves. The directions he gives to those who wish to enter "the snob-free zone" add up to a credo: "Care only about one's work, judge people only by their skill at their own work, and permit nothing else outside one's work to signify in any serious way. View the rest of the world as a more or less amusing carnival at which one happens to have earned--through, of course, one's work--a good seat. Judge all things by their intrinsic quality, and consider status a waste of time."

For Epstein then, there is nothing wrong, and everything right, about the making of distinctions. The main purpose of education, one might argue, is precisely to help students develop the ability to make ever more refined discriminations--epistemological, moral, and aesthetic. Anyone with a little schooling should be able to distinguish between, say, Dostoevsky and Philip Roth. But it requires a more finely educated judgment to rank Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Snobbery is, as Epstein insists, an attitude: one of contempt for others and of soul-corrupting self-importance. It is the kind of attitude that Dostoevsky repudiated after spending four years at hard labor with men with whom he would not otherwise have had dealings. Something, the Russian later recalled, "changed our outlook, our convictions, and our hearts." That something "was the direct contact with the people, the brotherly merger with them in a common misfortune, the realization that [we had] become even as they, that we had been made equal to them, and even to their lowest stratum." Love, Christian love, for even the lowly--especially the lowly--began to fill his heart and to lay the foundation for an unparalleled literary achievement.

In the final chapter of his book, Epstein recalls an epiphany, a revelatory moment of unalloyed love for others that W.H. Auden, himself a professed Christian, once experienced. What Auden apparently had undergone is the experience, or vision, of agape, in which one feels a purity of love for all human beings without invidious distinction of any kind, the powerfully certain feeling that one's fellows are worthy of the same respect, sympathy, and consideration as one pays oneself.

This is the kind of love that Epstein believes we should learn. It is the kind that does not die because of human imperfection, the kind that goes hand in hand with a love of life as it is, with all its pain, disappointment, and suffering. "For me," Epstein wrote in the introduction to Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing (1985), "love of life--no simple Rotarian optimism but love of life in all its vast complexity--is the ultimate test of a writer's worth." Snobbery provides convincing evidence that he has passed that test.n
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Title Annotation:Snobbery: The American Version
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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