Steven Beattie, a guy who is smarter than your av-er-age bear, takes on Tuesday’s post subject about the death of the novel from over at his blog That Shakespearean Rag, pointing out that the guy who wrote the article is older than dirt and probably speaks like a colonial tourist-explorer in a gentleman’s literary society club, circa 1919. (That last part is my own assumption, but can’t you just picture it? “Oh yes yes. Rather! I’m sure my savage guide would get a good chuckle from your jibe about turbans here in chapter 145, my good man! Would that he could read a civilized language and were allowed in here to hear it read in the authors own voice! Guffawfawfaw.”)
The bio at the bottom of Joseph Epstein’s latest diatribe about the rottenness of modern culture reads, “Joseph Epstein has been writing for Commentary for 57 years.” While this is clearly meant to sound valedictory, it strikes a discordant note, coming as it does at the close of a piece from the May 2020 issue of the vaunted American journal in which Epstein returns to a well he’s drunk from a few times too many in recent years, a well that contains water gone stale and putrid.
Those familiar with Epstein’s oeuvre will find his latest absolutely unsurprising. A noted curmudgeon and arch conservative (his bylines include the stalwart right-wing paper the Washington Examiner) Epstein was booted as editor of The American Scholar by, in his words, “academics who had an investment in feminism, black history, and gay and lesbian studies.” The former editor goes on to say that he “mostly treated these subjects in The American Scholar by ignoring them.”
This admission is telling, given his argument in “What Happened to the Novel?” (Which repeats, not incidentally, elements of his argument in the title essay of his 2018 collection The Ideal of Culture.) The crux of that argument is that western culture has been denuded and desiccated as a result of the general public turning its collective back on the towering literature of the western canon. “We have no modern Balzac, no Stendhal, no John Dos Passos, novelists who created characters ranging across the social spectrum, along the way giving one a feeling for a great city or the fate of a nation,” Epstein writes. “Novelists of an earlier time had a godlike mastery over vast stretches of knowledge, experience, intimate life that has long been missing.”