Please read D. G. Myers’s warm tribute to his teacher Joseph Epstein, one of our finest essayists. In my judgment Epstein’s very best work came when he was editor of The American Scholar and in each of the journal’s four quarterly issues wrote long, digressive, elegant essays under the nom de plume Aristides. He has done much fine work since he was dismissed from the journal in 1998, but rarely has he been given the room to stretch out that he had then, the opportunity to allow thoughts to unspool in a sufficiently leisurely fashion to make the most of his ability to find unexpected connections and write about them in lovely prose.
I also think the journal itself was much better under Epstein than it has been since, and not because I share many (though not all) of Epstein’s culturally conservative views. In an interview a few years back he explained what he was trying to do as editor of The American Scholar:
the point of the small magazines, which is to operate outside “the news cycle,” though not all of them are aware of it. The problem with the news cycle is that it turns so quickly: Hence all the talk of the death of newspapers, owing to their not being able to keep up with the news quickly enough. One cannot live — or at least not live very well — on news, or even contemporary culture, alone. When I edited The American Scholar, I don’t believe the name of any American president then in office appeared in its pages. I thought the point of a quarterly magazine is to get one outside the oppressiveness of the news, with its crisis of the moment, its heated partisanships, and to remind people of the poetry of life, its charm, its grand traditions of learning and creation.
How many non-academic journals exist today, journals in the tradition that used to be called belles lettres, that take this long view of culture and value? Not many; not nearly enough.
If you haven’t read Epstein, I’d suggest that you try some of the collections of his Aristides essays: Once More Around the Block, The Middle of My Tether, A Line Out for A Walk — the latter title one that I’ve never really liked because I can’t help hearing it as being about baseball: If you were a hitter, would you trade a lineout for a walk? But I digress. Epstein’s essays are wonderful, and you should read them.
I might add this note: I wrote a few things for The American Scholar when Epstein edited it, and we corresponded a bit. He was very kind to me, and supportive. I managed to get him to come out to Wheaton once to give a talk, but realized only after he left that I had forgotten to give him his check. He was probably on his way back to his home in Evanston when I called and left an apologetic voicemail message. He returned the call when I was out, and left a message of his own: “Your oversight strokes me as a clear case of anti-Semitism. You’ll be hearing from my lawyer, Mr. Dershowitz….”