Joseph Epstein has been called America’s liveliest, most erudite and engaging essayist” (James Atlas), and In a Cardboard Belt! provides ample proof for the claim. Taking his title from the wounded cry of the once great Max Bialystock in The Producers -- Look at me now! Look at me now! I’m wearing a cardboard belt!” -- Epstein gives us his largest and most comprehensive collection to date.
Writing as a memoirist, polemicist, literary critic, and amused observer of contemporary culture, he uses to deft and devastating effect his signature gifts: wide-ranging erudition, sparkling humor, and a penetrating intelligence. In personally revealing essays about his father and about his years as a teacher, in deeply considered examinations of writers from Paul Valery to Truman Capote, and in incisive take-downs of such cultural pooh-bahs as Harold Bloom and George Steiner, this remarkable collection presents us with the best work of our country’s most singular talent, engaged with the richness and variety of life, witty in his response to the world, and always entertaining.
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JOSEPH EPSTEIN is the author of the best-selling Snobbery and of Friendship, among other books, and was formerly editor of the American Scholar. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Oh Dad, Dear Dad
It will soon be seven years since my father died, leaving me, at a mere sixty- two, orphaned. He was ninety-one when he died, in his sleep, in his own apartment in Chicago. Such was the relentlessness of his vigor that, until his last year, I referred to him behind his back as the Energizer Bunny: he just kept going. I used to joke half joke is closer to it about the vague possibility” that he would predecease me. Now he has done it, and his absence, even today, takes getting used to.
When an aged parent dies, one’s feelings are greatly mixed. I was relieved that my father had what seems to have been an easeful death. In truth, I was also relieved at not having to worry about him any longer (though, apart from running a few errands and keeping his checkbook in the last few years of his life, he really gave my wife and me very little to worry about). But with him dead, I have been made acutely conscious that I am next in line for the guillotine: C’est, as Pascal would have it, la condition humaine.
Now that my father is gone, many questions will never be answered. Not long before he died I was driving him to his accountant’s office and, without any transition, he said, I wanted a third child, but your mother wasn’t interested.” This was the first I had heard about it. He was never a very engaged parent, certainly not by the full-court-press standards of today. Having had two sons me and my younger brother had he, I suddenly wondered, begun to yearn for a daughter?
Why wasn’t Mother interested?” I asked.
I don’t remember,” he said. Subject closed.
On another of our drives in that last year, he asked me if I had anything in the works in the way of business. I told him I had been invited to give a lecture in Philadelphia. He inquired if there was a fee. I said there was: $5,000.
For an hour’s talk?” he said, a look of astonishment on his face.
Fifty minutes, actually,” I said, unable to resist provoking him lightly. His look changed from astonishment to bitter certainty. The country had to be in one hell of a sorry condition if they were passing out that kind of dough for mere talk from his son.
Was he, then, a good father? This was the question an acquaintance put to me at lunch recently. When I asked what he meant by good, he said: Was he, for example, fair?” My father was completely fair, never showing the least favoritism between my brother and me (a judgment my brother has con- firmed). He also set an example of decency, nicely qualified by realism. No one is asking you to be an angel in this world,” he told me when I was fourteen, but that doesn’t give you warrant to be a son-of-a-bitch.” And, as this suggests, he was an unrelenting fount of advice, some of it pretty obvious, none of it stupid. Always put something by for a rainy day.” People know more about you than you think.” Work for a man for a dollar an hour always give him a dollar and a quarter’s effort.” Some of his advice seemed wildly misplaced. Next to your brother, money’s your best friend” was a remark made all the more unconvincing by the fact that my brother and I, nearly six years apart in age, were never that close to begin with. On the subject of sex, the full extent of his wisdom was Be careful.” Of what, exactly, I was to be careful venereal disease? pregnancy? getting entangled with the wrong girl? he never filled in.
My father and I spent a lot of time together when I was an adolescent. He manufactured and imported costume jewelry (also known as junk jewelry) and novelties identification bracelets, cigarette lighters, miniature cameras, bolo ties which he sold to Woolworth’s, to the International Shoe Company, to banks, and to concessionaires at state fairs. I traveled with him in the summer, spelling him at the wheel of his Buicks and Oldsmobiles, toting his sample cases, writing up orders, listening to him tell ad infinitum, ad nauseam the same three or four jokes to customers. We shared rooms in less-than-first-class hotels in midwestern towns Des Moines, Minneapolis, Columbus but never achieved anything close to intimacy, at least in our conversation. His commercial advice was as useful as his advice about sex. Always keep a low overhead.” You make your money in buying right, you know, not in selling.” Never run away from business.” Some of it has stuck; nearly a half century later, I still find it hard to turn down a writing assignment lest I prove guilty of running away from business.
My least favorite of his maxims was You can’t argue with success.” In my growing-up days, I thought there was nothing better to argue with. I tried to tell him why, but I never seemed to get my point across. The only time our argumentts ever got close to the shouting stage was over the question of whether or not federal budgets had to be balanced. I was then in my twentiiiiies, and our ignorance on this question was equal and mutual though he turned out to be right: all things considered, balanced is better.
When not in his homiletic mode, my father could be very penetrating. There are three ways to do business in this country,” he once told me. At the top level, you rely heavily on national advertising and public relations. At the next level, you take people out to dinner or golfing, you buy them theater tickets, supply women. And then there’s my level.” Pause. Asked what went on there, he replied: I cut prices.” His level, I thought then and still think, was much the most honorable.
He appreciated jokes, although in telling them he could not sustain even a brief narrative. His own best wit entailed a comic resignation. In his late eighties, he made the mistake of sending to a great-nephew whom he had never met a bar mitzvah check for $1,000, instead of the $100 he had intended. When I discovered the error and pointed it out to him, he paused only briefly, smiled, and said, Boy, is his younger brother going to be disappointed.” Work was the place where my father seemed most alive, most impressive. Born in Montreal and having never finished high school, he came to America at seventeen, not long before the Depression. He took various flunky jobs, but soon found his niche as a salesman. Kid,” one of his bosses once told him, so good was he at his work, try to remember that this desk I’m sitting behind is not for sale.” Eventually, he owned his own small business.
He worked six days a week, usually arriving at 7:30 a.m. If he could find some excuse to go down to work on Sunday, he was delighted to do so. On his rare vacations, he would call in two or three times a day to find out what was in the mail, who telephoned, what deliveries arrived.
He never had more than seven or eight employees, but the business was fairly lucrative. In the late 1960s I recall him saying to me, The country must be in terrible shape. You should see the crap I’m selling.” In later years, a nephew worked for him; neither my brother nor I ever seriously thought about joining the business, sensing that it was a one-man show, without sufficient oxygen for two. One day, after he had had a falling-out with this nephew, my father said to me, He’s worked for me for fifteen years. We open at eight-thirty, and for fifteen years he has come in at exactly eight- thirty. You’d think once just once the kid would be early.” I call people rich,” Henry James has Ralph Touchett say in The Portrait of a Lady, when they’re able to meet the requirements of their imagination.” Although not greatly wealthy, my father made enough money fully to meet the demands of his. He could give ample sums to (mostly Jewish) charities, help out poor relatives, pay for his sons’ education, buy his wife the diamonds and furs and good clothes that were among the trophies of my parents’ generation’s success, in retirement take his grandsons to Israel, Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Soviet Union, New Zealand. At the very end, he told me that what most pleased him about his financial independence was never having to fall back on anyone else for help, right up to and including his exit from the world.
In my late twenties, my father, then in his late fifties, had a mild heart attack, and I feared I would lose him without ever getting to know him better. Having just recently returned to Chicago after a stint directing the anti-poverty program in Little Rock, Arkansas, I thought it might be a good thing if we were to meet once a week for lunch. On the first of these occasions, I took him to a French restaurant on the Near North Side. The lunch lasted nearly ninety minutes. I could practically smell his boredom, feel his longing to get back to the place,” as he called his business, then located on North Avenue west of Damon. We never lunched alone again until after my mother’s death, when I felt he needed company.
At some point around, I think, the time he hit sixty my father, like many another successful man operating within a fairly small circle, ceased listening. A courteous, even courtly man, he was, please understand, never rude. He would give you your turn and not interrupt, nodding his head in agreement at much of what you said. But he was merely waiting waiting to insert one of his own thoughts. He had long since mastered the falsely modest introductory clause, which he put to regular use: I’m inclined to believe that there is more good than bad in the world,” he might offer, or I may be mistaken, but don’t you agree that disease and war are Mother Nature’s way of thinning out the population?” I winced when I learned that the father of a friend of mine, having met him a few times, had taken to referring to my father as the Rabbi.” Although he did not dwell on the past, neither was he much interested in the future. He had an astonishing ability to block things out, including his own illnesses, even surgeries. He claimed to have no memory of his heart attack, and he chose not to remember that, like many men past their mid-eighties, he had had prostate cancer. I’m a great believer in mind over matter,” he used to say.
He also liked to say that there wasn’t anything really new under the sun. When I would report some excess to him for example, a lunch check of $180 for two in New York he would say, What’re ya, kidding me?” Although he was greatly interested in human nature, psychology at the level of the individual held no attraction for him. If I told him about someone’s odd or unpredictable or stupid behavior, he would respond, What is he, crazy?” Then, after his retirement at seventy-five, my father began to write. His own father had composed two books one in Hebrew and one in Yiddish for which my father had paid most of the expense of private publication. Offering to sell some of these books, he kept a hundred or so copies stored in our basement. This turned out to be a ruse for increasing the monthly stipend he was already sending my grandfather: each month he would add $30, $45, or $50, saying it represented payment for books he had sold. Then one day a UPS truck pulled up with another hundred books and a note from my grandfather, who had grown worried that his son’s stock was running low.
And now here was I, his eldest son, also publishing books. My father must have felt with a heavy dose here of mutatis mutandis like the Mendelssohn who was the son of the philosopher and the father of the composer but never had his own shot at a touch of intellectual glory. So he, too, began writing. His preferred form was the two- or three-sentence pensée (he would never have called it that), usually pointing a moral. Man forces nature to reveal her chemical secrets” is an example of his work in this line. Nature evens the score because man cannot always control the chemicals.” In the middle of the morning my phone would ring, and it would be my father with a question: How do you spell affinity’?” Then he would ask if he was using the word correctly in the passage he was writing, which he would read to me. I always told him I thought his observations were interesting, or accurate, or that I had never before thought of the point he was making. Often I tossed in minor corrections, or I might suggest that his second sentence didn’t quite follow from his first. I loved him too much to say that a lot of what he had written bordered on the commonplace and, alas, often crossed that border. I’m not sure he cared all that much about my opinion anyway.
He began to carry a small notepad in his shirt pocket. On his afternoon walks, new material would occur to him. Adding pages daily hourly, almost he announced one day that he had a manuscript of more than a thousand pages. He referred to these writings offhandedly as my stuff,” or my crap,” or the chazerai I write.” Still, he wanted to know what I thought about sending them to a publisher. The situation was quite hopeless; but I lied, said it was worth a try, and wrote a letter over his name to accompany a packet of fifty or so pages of typescript. He began with the major publishers, then went to the larger university presses, then to more obscure places.
After twenty or so rejections, I suggested a vanity-press arrangement never using the deadly word vanity.” For $10,000 or so, he could have 500 copies of a moderate-size book printed for his posterity. But he had too much pride for that, and after a while he ceased to send out his material. What he was writing, he concluded, had too high a truth quotient it was, he once put it to me, too hot” for the contemporary world. But he kept on scribbling away, flagging only in the last few years of his life, when he complained that his inspiration was drying up.
Altogether, he had ended up with some 2,700 pages his earnest, ardent attempt to make sense of the world before departing it. Although he had no more luck in this than the rest of us, there was something gallant about the attempt.
Becoming aware of our fathers’ fallibilities is a jolt. When I was six years old, we lived in a neighborhood where I was the youngest kid on the block and thus prey to eight- and nine-year-olds with normal boyish bullying tendencies. One of them, a kid named Denny Price, was roughing me up one day when I told him that if he didn’t stop, my father would get him. Ya fadda,” said Denny Price, is an asshole.” Even to hear my father spoken of this way sickened me. I would have preferred another punch in the stomach.
WorldWar II was over by the time I was eight, but I remember being disappointed that my father had not gone to fight. (He was too old.) I also recall my embarrassment I was nine at seeing him at an office party of a jewelry company he then worked for (Beiler-Levine, on Wabash Avenue), clownishly placing his hand on the stomach of a pregnant secretary, closing his eyes, and predicting the sex of the child.
He was less stylish than many of my friends’ fathers. He had no clothes for leisure, and when he went to the beach (which he rarely did), he marched down in black business shoes, socks with clocks on them, and very white legs. He cared not at all about sports which, when young, was the only thing I did care about. Later, I saw him come to wrong decisions about real estate, worry in a fidgeting way over small sums he was owed, make serious misjudgments about people. He preferred to operate, rather as in his writing, at too high a level of generality. Mother Nature abhors a vacuum,” he used to say, and I, to myself, would think, No, Dad, it’s a vacuum-cleaner salesman she abhors.” At some point in my thirties I concluded that my father was not nearly so subtle or penetrating as my mother.
What do boys and young men want from their fathers? For the most part I think we want precisely what they cannot give us a painless transfusion of wisdom, a key to life’s mysteries, the secret to happiness, assurance that one’s daily struggles and aggravations am...
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