My former teacher made fun of Jill Biden’s Ph.D. this weekend, and reaped the whirlwind
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Casually going about her business on another socially-distanced Saturday night at home, my wife was looking at her phone. Then she said to me, “Have you heard about that Wall Street Journal piece?”
“Which one?” I asked.
“The guy who said that Jill Biden shouldn’t use the ‘Dr.’ in front of her name.”
I’d vaguely seen that story in my slipstream.
“Oh yeah,” I said.
“A guy who used to teach at Northwestern wrote it.”
“Who’s that?” I asked.
I just about spit out my lemon-lime sparkling water.
Not only was Joseph Epstein my teacher at Northwestern in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was probably my favorite teacher. I took a class in essay writing from him as part of the creative-writing certificate that I never finished. And I campaigned hard to get into his much-in-demand course on Henry James. Epstein had a coolly elegant prose style that mixed high and low references. He influenced me a lot, as later seen in my masterworks like my song-poem “I Wipe My Ass On Your Novel” and my series of essays for The Stranger where I told people talking about politics to “shut the fuck up.”
My own father was kind of a tunkl when it came to culture, consuming only TV shows where detectives solved prostitute murders, and reading only Dick Francis racing mysteries. By comparison, Joseph Epstein was a vastly erudite figure with an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and Montaigne and a grumpy, mordant wit. He may not have been my literary father, but to me, he definitely was Uncle Joe, as he was for so many of his students, and not just the male ones.
But he was also a conservative, which, even in the early 1990s, wasn’t a particularly cool thing to be at a university. At the time, my writing was at its pinko-est, and he would consistently judge my left-wing essays for the student magazine as “thin.” But I still respected him immensely, even when my friends made fun of me for my dorky hero worship. He encouraged my writing and called me a “throwback” to the days of grouchy, witty journo-men. He edited The American Scholar, the erudite house publication of the Phi Beta Kappa society. He wrote essays. For magazines. And, as Homer Simpson once said, “my favorite books are magazines.” I really wanted to be some version of “Dr.” Epstein, no matter his bad reputation. As they say, “he was always nice to me.” Until he wasn’t.
I haven’t spoken to, or even much thought about, Joe Epstein in nearly 30 years. Upon my graduation from Northwestern, I persuaded him to go out for coffee with my parents and me. Afterwards, I asked him if he’d liked dear old mom and dad.
“They’re interesting characters,” he said.
And at that moment, the mentorship ended.
Well, fuck you, asshole, I thought.
In retrospect, of course, he was perfectly correct. My parents were interesting characters. Now they’re both dead.
And Joseph Epstein has been canceled.
A Conservative Cicada
Now, in 2020, the year of Satan himself, Epstein has emerged into the public consciousness as the guy who referred to our incoming professorial First Lady Jill Biden as “kiddo” and who mocked her Ph.D. thesis on community colleges. My wife is a community-college professor. So to her, Joseph Epstein might as well be Joseph Goebbels.
But this is standard practice. Every quarter century or so, Joseph Epstein blurts out something that absolutely enrages the liberal elite.
In 1970s, in Harper’s of all places, Epstein published an essay where he said:
“If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth. I would do so because I think it brings infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it; because I think there is no resolution for this pain in our lifetime, only, for the majority of homosexuals, more pain and various degrees of exacerbating adjustment; and because, wholly selfishly, I find myself completely incapable of coming to terms with it….”
This was horrible even for 1970, and the Gay Activists’ Alliance staged at sit-in at the Harper’s office. People were still acting aghast about the essay, written the year I was born, at Northwestern 20 years later. And then came a 1991 essay in the Kenyon Review or the Hudson Review, one of the reviews, where Epstein compared feminists with pit bulls and made a snide comment about “Dykes On Bikes.” This caused no less a personage than Joyce Carol Oates, one of Epstein’s contemporaries who is still sentient enough herself to write, to call for his resignation from The American Scholar. Phi Beta Kappa finally nuked him in 1996. In his parting essay, Epstein compared the governing board to Bolsheviks taking over the Russian Duma.
Epstein’s time at Northwestern ended soon after. But instead of hanging up the typewriter, he instead entered the most productive phase of his career. Most of his output is comprised of wryly-observed essays, cultural criticism, and short stories about old Jews. He’s 83 years old, an age at which most writers have already died of alcoholism, descended into bib-drooling, or otherwise departed for the literary glue factory. But in the last decade alone, he’s produced a book of essays about sports, a book about gossip, a book about charm, two collections of stories, and several anthologies of criticism. His most recent book is called ‘Gallimaufry,’ which is the name of Dr. Who’s home planet.
And then he called Jill Biden “kiddo” and all hell broke loose.
“A wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child,” Epstein wrote.
His sins for this were manifold, but this definitely premodern literary figure made two tragic out-of-touch miscalculations. First, he offended liberal female academics, who, among all American subgroups, is one of the most Extremely Online. “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished,” Dr. Jill Biden responded, without calling Joseph Epstein “Gramps.”
But more egregiously, Epstein erred by diminishing community colleges. In this age of populism, or at least lip service to populism, community colleges are safety nets for working-class kids of all backgrounds who might not have access to elite institutions like the Ivy League or Northwestern. The cadre of neoconservative intellectuals from which Epstein sprung, which included Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, themselves owe their educations to cheap urban colleges, though Epstein himself attended the University of Illinois in Champaign. Just because one doesn’t matriculate from Oxbridge or the Sorbonne doesn’t make one unworthy.
Well, Uncle Joe really stepped in it this time. As far as the intellectual elite is concerned, he’s a war criminal. Until today, Northwestern University called him a literary “Lecturer Emeritus.” Now, they’ve removed his name from their website. Man, erased.
Joseph Epstein taught me a lot about writing, and I’m very grateful, though not as grateful as the readers who enjoy my elegant sentence structure. Maybe in another 25 years, when Epstein is 108 years old, he’ll blurt out something that offends even more people. It would be fitting with his pattern.
And if not, well, he was definitely an interesting character.