April 6, 2009


The Lean and Slippered Pantaloon (James Bowman, 04/06/09, First Principles)

I immediately thought of the young man in Joseph Epstein’s college course on Henry James who, asked to describe the character of Gilbert Osmond in Portrait of a Lady, answers: “Well . . . he’s an a**hole.” I suspect that young people might find a touch of self-importance or portentousness in Mr. Epstein’s reaction to that comment, which was to give up teaching Henry James. “Something, I realized, had changed in the nature of civilized discourse in America.” But if you’re old enough, as I am, to respond sympathetically to further evidence that the younger generation is on the swiftest of trajectories to what Huckleberry Finn called “the bad place” and therefore most likely soon to be disqualified completely from the life of the mind, you will find much to enjoy in the book which contains this anecdote. It is Mr. Epstein’s tenth collection of essays, titled In a Cardboard Belt! after the famous lament of Max Bialystock in The Producers, and published on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

As always with this author, the best essays are the personal ones, full as they are of revealing, touching, amusing, or instructive touches and many “wise saws and modern instances” (for the benefit WikiAnswers readers, “saws” means sayings and “modern” means “everyday”). Above all he has the familiar essayist’s trick of being confiding and disarming, as when he writes in a parenthesis that “Life is not easy for me, being a snob and a reverse snob simultaneously.” The essays are about the death of his father, keeping a diary, being a teacher, his dislike of travel, his culinary tastes, obituaries, and the piquant “Why I am not a lawyer.” This may be the most provocatively titled essay in the collection, since it immediately summons up so many possible answers to the implied question that we are almost forced to read on to discover which one it is—and if it may be one that we haven’t thought of yet. I won’t give away the answer, but it is the best possible of the reasons for anyone’s not being a lawyer only better expressed and better illustrated with examples of both the best and the worst sorts of lawyer than most of those who have similarly dodged the lawyerly bullet could have thought of.

The final essay in this section and the one which represents the most emphatic life-milestone in a book that is uncomfortably aware throughout of the passage of time is about getting rid of a personal library it took him a lifetime to accumulate. This, too, is a fascinating subject, especially to the author’s fellow bibliomanes who must feel, as I did, a frisson of horror at the very idea of such a divestment. And yet the logic is impeccable. At a certain point in your life, you have to come to terms with the fact that there is simply not enough time left to you to read Orwell or Mencken again, let alone Shaw or Thomas Mann.

Much as one hate to disagree with two such estimable figures as Mr. Bowman and Mr. Epstein, the young man is right and any further time wasted on analyzing fiction as notoriously deadly as James's merely compounds the waste of having read him in the first place, time which could have been spent reading the good books in your library.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 6, 2009 11:52 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus