Public Enemy Number whatever

Frederic Raphael defends his friend, the writer Joseph Epstein, latest victim of America’s cancel culture for daring to mock Jill Biden’s doctorate


Andy Warhol got it right: in the future, he said, some years ago, everyone will have a turn at being famous for 15 minutes; alternatively, infamous. Byron woke up and found himself famous when he was 24; my friend Joseph Epstein had to wait for notoriety until his middle eighties.

After a scandal-free life as prolific writer, critic and professor at Chicago’s Northwestern University, the octogenarian scamp was recently hustled into the media’s pillory and pelted with e-abuse and celebrity brickbats from the new Furies: Hillary Clinton (her conscience as clean as Whitewater), Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris’s husband.

What felony did the veteran reprobate commit to deserve having so many imperious jurors turn their thumbs down on him? Joe’s quasi-capital insolence lay in writing a lighthearted op-ed piece, in the Wall Street Journal, advising America’s imminent First Lady not to persist in inserting “Dr” before her name. To make his point, he addressed her, with familiarity war- ranted by the First Amendment, as “Mrs Biden — Jill — kiddo”.

Joe Epstein combines high intelligence with good humour. His essays and reviews are backed by prodigious reading

Her distinction, he pointed out, gently, derived from an Ed.D. at the University of Delaware, thanks to a dissertation on “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs”. How many years of study or original research had been called for before that dignity was dished out? Such abbreviated distinctions might as well be called Thank You Letters. I have a Cambridge contemporary who distributed editorial commissions so thoughtfully that she is now draped with enough honorary degrees to make Edith Sitwell look under-decorated.

The nearest I ever came to honorary academic eminence was when displaced from a promised doctorate by a sprinter who once won bronze in his event in the Commonwealth Games. More sportspersons now seem to receive knighthoods than any writer or war hero ever did. Michael Frayn, our Companion of Letters, with a matchless oeuvre, properly refused that honour, as did Somerset Maugham many years ago. What would he feel like, Willie wondered, when taking precedence over mere Mr W.B. Yeats? Robert Graves held that writers should never accept honours, except for bravery. He happened to have won the MC.

Insolent Epstein went on, “A wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr’ unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.” Joe mentioned that whenever a student called him “doctor” on the telephone, he prescribed early to bed with two chapters of Henry James. The only unquestionable non-medical instance of regularly pronounced self-importance in recent years is Dr Kissinger, whose prescription for the Vietnamese was fire and brimstone. Before him, in ancient times, there was Dr Goebbels whose lies have now been thoroughly trumped.

For 20 years, Joe Epstein combined being editor of The American Scholar, no mean eminence, with teaching English literature. During his long untenured academic career, he declined to solicit faculty status as a professor. He chose to remain free of academic drag and scholarly pretentiousness. Intelligence requires no ermine dressing. Teaching was a job and a pleasure; he smiled at George Steiner’s affectations of being some deutero-John the Baptist.

Joe first contacted me when he was editing a compendium of essays on classic English and American writers. With accurate instinct, he suggested I write about William Hazlitt, whom I have taken as a model ever since Somerset Maugham recommended him for his trim prose and genial humour. Jobbing outspokenness was spiced by sometimes outrageous personal conduct.

On a trip to the Lake District, he was roused to spank a local charmer who denied him; quite enough to have him dragged through modern streets on a hurdle. Hazlitt did exit, pursued by indignant indigènes, but incurred more metropolitan joshing than obloquy. Hazlitt admired Napoleon Bonaparte (Byron’s “little pagod”) but was never vilified for it.

In the wake of the Regency, witty writing was more prized than propriety, although after his bruited, brutal treatment of his wife Annabella, Byron chose to flee the country, in a commissioned carriage, with built-in library, which he never paid for. His Lordship headed for the continent to escape mobbing — not least about his relationship with his scatty half-sister Augusta — and fat debts (to what he called “the Jews”, by which he meant anyone, circumcised or not, with a just claim on his dusty purse). Immortality, albeit — all-bite, as folkloric Arthur Scargill would say — with a sinister bend, clung to his heels, mud too. He did not lose any of his friends.

It would be neat to claim that Joe Epstein and I began the correspondence that has become a friendship because we disagreed about so many things. Not that many, in truth, never acrimoniously. Both born in Chicago, in our flyting we sought to entertain and inform each other. He has never lived anywhere else; I stayed in Illinois only long enough to have my nappy changed. Joe was a close friend of Saul Bellow until he wearied of the Great Writer’s self-inflating so-called novels and attendant posturing. Nobel-prizewinning Humboldt’s Gift has spawned innumerable egocentric pseudo-fictions, Martin Amis’s recent overweight number not necessarily the best. What writer in unceasing pursuit of grand associations is likely to be much of an artist?

Joe’s taste, if refined, is anything but narrow-minded: H.L. Mencken and Theodore Dreiser are among his favourites. Both sometimes antisemitic, both often wrote the right stuff. Mencken’s provincial scorn for the “booboisie” would be ruthlessly sanctioned in today’s mock-outspoken media. In England, journalists — inspired by the rise and rise of Michael Gove, which has yet to make him very tall — are now the episcopacy which decrees who shall be saved, who damned. Against the stream, as Scott Fitzgerald advertised, is the only way to go. What has done literature more harm than the multiplicity of “creative writing” courses unless it’s the plethora of laurels? Literature is today’s field for Lewis Carroll’s caucus race in which all shall have prizes. If you want better books, cancel all awards, follow no leaders. Write as well as you can; never as others tell you.

One of the now standard charges, levelled against Joe was that he is a misogynist – his favourite modernish novelist is Willa Cather

Whaddya know? The postman has just delivered a sumptuously plump volume of Joe’s latest collected work, Gallimaufry. As so often, he combines high intelligence with good humour. His essays and reviews, skittish or elegant in honouring Catullus’s principle of variatio, are backed by prodigious reading. Unlike many fancy New York pundits who, a Wall Street Journal editor told me, will not undertake to praise or braze any book longer than 220 pages, Joe relishes diligent preparation and unaggressive assessment. No great admirer of modern models, he resembles Byron’s Holland House friend, the banker poet Samuel Rogers who said, “Whenever I hear of a good new book, I rush out and buy an old one.” Gallimaufry is as good a blend as you could hope for.

One of the now standard charges, levelled against Joe, after his good-natured ribbing of Mrs Biden, was that he is a misogynist. His favourite modernish novelist is Willa Cather. If Epstein were not a Jew, he would be charged with antisemitism; as a Jew, with being a kike. The defenders of American womanhood were prompt to label him as meriting the abusive term which Byron remarked was but a letter away from cant. Hundreds of dribs and drabs rallied to abuse him. TV and radio producers with little time or space for books, were all set to send chauffeur-driven tumbrils to collect him for public execution. He declined the Sydney Carton role.

Most of Joe’s original article has little to do with Joe Biden’s lady; more with the bad example set by the vulgarisation of once rare distinctions and their wholesale distribution to toadies, cronies and place-persons. Rebecca West (is she yet racked on the “who she?” shelf?) told me, 40 years ago, unless it was 50, that giving the Order of Merit to unjolly Jack Priestley had devalued the one distinction which, until then, had been worth having. The recent Honours List may be attributed, politely, to the Queen; in practice it is padded by Boris Johnson and fellow judges of moral and other, contributory, qualities.

When the Times Literary Supplement was subjected to its recent ugly embellishment, Joe Epstein guessed right away that Stig Abell had been dumped in the editorial chair with a brief to beef up the readability (lower the IQ) and excite a new young, tweet-schooled audience by reducing the space allotted to serious matters and giving the mag a cheeky, come-and-get-me face, with wider margins. Joe wrote warning Stig against trendy politicising and popularity-seeking. Better, much, to stick to good books and their nuanced appreciation. He received a calmez-vous reply that implied (a typo has “pimp lied”) that small attention would be paid to his Ides of Marching. Not long afterwards, fears borne out, Joe cancelled his very long-running subscription.

The TLS is now a renovated old lady who has gone woke. Having wrought commissioned havoc and reduced the readership, Stiggers has been decamped to higher ground in the Murdoch range. Before taking his unapplauded leave, he fingered a few old hands, including Jim Campbell, who more than once dealt Joe Epstein (and me) a deliberate low blow, and Adrian Tahourdin, in charge of the — soon to be superfluous? — French section. Tournent, tournent, mes personnages . . . (see Max Ophuls’s film La Ronde 1950, but don’t expect too much).

Joe affects to shrug at the decision of the university that he served for 30 years to delete him from their website, but it is evidence of the academic cowardice which functions no less ruthlessly in England. The Theresa May government’s panicky expulsion of the dying Roger Scruton from its (unpaid) counsels on account of some unpopular observation is one more proof of intellectual spinelessness. That Scruton’s eviction was later rescinded proves more how opportunist it was than how good a heart our betters really have.

As for Professor David Starkey, who will choose to dine with, or speak to, his erstwhile academic colleagues, of however many years, who chose to bin him on account of his unguarded, not to say loutish remark about “blacks”? His valid point, however crassly expressed, was that slaves, although appallingly brutalised, were not exterminated. They were valuable capital, exploited, bought and sold. “Genocide” is inapplicable; they were not murdered en masse, or on principle, and they were not a “race”.

Almost 60 years ago, the British Academy refused, if only just, to drum Anthony Blunt from its ranks because he had been a Russian agent. Now a man can expect to end his days in purdah for calling someone coloured rather than black. Keep up with the going buzz-words, all you once-brave individualists, or prepare to live a life of tier-six isolation. Rochefoucauld said, smartly, that there is something about the misfortunes of our friends which does not entirely displease us. Fiche-moi la paix, monsieur le duc, innit? Joe Epstein’s experience disgusts me and gives me no pleasure whatsoever.

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