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Critical Review by Penelope Mesic
SOURCE: "The Heat and the Intimacy," in Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1995, sec. 14, p. 3.
In the following review, Mesic compares the essay styles of Ehrenreich and Joseph Epstein.
Other than a review, these two collections of essays by Joseph Epstein and Barbara Ehrenreich deserve something more closely resembling a National Geographic Special. For no team of Sherpaled climbers or divers finning through the crannies of a coral reef, ever discovered more diverse or improbable life forms thriving in a single culture. Well-adapted to the hot, volcanic slopes of national politics we find the highly colored clusters of barbed remarks known as commentarius Ehrenreichii. At a more rarefied elevation, flowering profusely in a sheltered nook, are the exquisite blooms of Epstein's mots, called anglophile's necktie.
Ehrenreich is passionate, public and politically engaged, with a style as subtle as a hand grenade. Epstein is intensely private, and succeeds when he has, with the smallest pressure, extracted the essence of the quietest moment of ordinary life. Their very virtues are at war with one another. Thus the same sense of wonder that comes to the naturalist confronted with life's variety, is aroused in the reader. We marvel that our much maligned American society, supposedly homogenized by the mass media, can sustain two such fiercely distinct personalities.
Most of the essays in Ehrenreich's The Snarling Citizen first appeared in Time or the English Guardian. They startle and invigorate because those who espouse liberal causes feminism, day care and a strong labor movement—all too often write a granola of prose: a mild, beige substance that is, in a dull way, good for us. Ehrenreich is peppery and salacious, bitter with scorn, hotly lucid. She can find something shocking to say about cleaning house, exulting in the fact that working women, after "decades of unappreciated drudgery" are no longer measuring their worth by keeping their homes "cleaner than a motel room." Moving to a bigger, dirtier House—of Representatives—she cheerfully lambastes it as a "half-way house for long-term miscreants and un-indicted felons."
In "S & M as Public Policy" she blisters those eager to build punitive measures into the welfare system, writing, "For poor males we have prison; for poor females, welfare—and there's no reason why one sex's punishment should be any less onerous than the other's." Her further, Swiftian recommendation is flogging indigent mothers—"it will make the hawks and wonks feel much better without starving a single child."
More gently mocking the "celebrants of Purim and Kwanzaa and Solstice" who overstress their ancestral traditions, she remarks that when asked to fill in a blank for ethnic background, she always writes "none," and dryly notes, "Skepticism, curiosity, and wide-eyed ecumenical tolerance are also part of the human tradition."
Show Ehrenreich a sacred cow and she will tie its tail in a knot. Writing of Salmon Rushdie, she feigns envy: "for what writer has not dreamed of enjoying global fame while his publishers are picked off one by one?"
Occasionally, Ehrenreich relents, admires and bestows sober praise. This is most apparent when she writes about the separation of church and state, pointing out that "not all the founding fathers believed in the same God, or in any God at all." She goes on to remind us that the real issue is not that of giving the church too much power, but of giving the state too much power. To associate government intimately with religion, is to endow it with more than earthly legitimacy: "By stripping government of supernatural authority, the Founding Fathers created a zone of freedom around each individual human conscience … They demystified government, and reduced it to something within reach of human comprehension, protest, and change."
These moments, when Ehrenreich lays mockery aside, are rare. In general her essays are slash and dazzle, outrageous generalization with an underpinning of scrupulously accurate fact—designed to fix our attention and hold it by force. These pieces are indeed wonderful, but they were designed to be read in the public press, against a background of border wars and plane crashes. This is a voice lifted to carry to the back of a crowd.
A voice in every way more intimate is Joseph Epstein's. As the Godfather Don Corleone once said, "Everything is personal," and reading these essays we feel Epstein would say much the same thing but with a more benign inflection. Like the first essayist Montaigne, Epstein tells us a good deal about himself. He is something of a dandy, at least in his choice of neckties. He abhors the notion of carrying other people's business slogans and logos on one's person and can't see a poor fish in clothes emblazoned "Ralph Lauren," without thinking of Art Carney on the old Honeymooners show exclaiming. "Yo, ho, ho, Ralphie boy!" He loves colored paper clips, fine-leaded mechanical pencils and is in general, as many authors are, "quite nuts about office supplies." In the course of two pages he can, and does, quote Evelyn Waugh, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Goldwyn, Gustav Mahler, Arnaldo Momigliano, the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron, Clifton Fadiman and his own mother, thus giving the impression that his solitude is like most people's cocktail parties.
But the point of Epstein's kind of essay is neither to press quotations into a sort of bouillon cube of experience nor to make a collage of one's foibles. It is to capture ordinary life and thought and render it significant without robbing it of its freshness—in other words, an impossible task. The great danger in the enterprise is creating the same triviality life itself is often guilty of, producing well-turned phrases on a so-what theme. To this danger Epstein occasionally succumbs.
But more often he uses his elegance and beauty of cadence humbly, in the service of his affections. In the essay "Here for Mink" he writes of his mother, a "woman without sentimentality or nostalgia," who "granted [him] enormous freedom," and of whom Epstein says: "We were beyond intimacy. We were at that stage of affection where we understood each other without having to explain much, where we knew we could rely on each other without any qualification, where we loved each other so much that we didn't have to display our love in outward endearments. I miss her, like mad."
By offering us this vision of a reciprocal and uncomplicated love, he is following his own advice: "If everyone seems to be rushing to blow out the trembling match of culture and leave us in darkness … then those who love life are under the obligation not to desert it not yet anyway. Best not to concentrate altogether on the sycophancy, cowardice, and fraudulence of a society that feels as if it's in decomposition … Better to think instead of large-hearted men and women who refused to be daunted in much darker times than ours."
For all their differences Epstein and Ehrenreich have this much in common: they scorn the generality of human conduct, its veniality, its spite and dumbness, precisely because they have worked to keep before them an image of what is better.
This section contains 1,167 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)