Saturday, February 16, 2013

Master Of The Literary Essay

On Writing

An article, by Michael Johnson, in Open Letters Monthly reviews Joseph Epstein's Essays in Biography, a collection of essays on noted writers, Johnson writes, including "Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazin, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and George Santayana, then to the English: Max Beerbohm, George Eliot, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Cyril Connolly and others."

Epstein, a well-known literary critic, and creative-writing professor, makes a wonderful insight that explains much about writers and the process of writing. Johnson writes in the review article:
Epstein is not particularly impressed by writers as people. One observation that brought me up short was a throw-away line in his assessment of Santayana: “So many writers, great-souled saints in their work, turn out to be utter creeps in their lives.” And in an Epsteinian whip-around, he adds that Santayana was “for the most part a case of the reverse.” Yet Epstein admires Santayana for his ability to make the world seem more understandable and to express himself with a “tincture of poetry.” It’s the average writers he objects to. After reading Santayana’s voluminous output, including the eighth volume of his letters, which he was reviewing for this essay, Epstein anoints him “one of the greatest of American writers.”
It is true that if you have read biographies of many great and well-known writers, as I have, you will find Epstein's analysis of writers as human beings to be accurate. Writing is truly one of the most-solitary professions; it takes dedication, focus and a highly developed skill of observation to write well.

Writers that produce literary masterpieces generally tend to be selfish individuals, devoted primarily to their writing and little else. They rarely place their families first, and are a slave to their art. This is not to say there aren't exceptions, but it seems that such a driven and focused personality is the necessary price to pay for producing great literature.

You can read the rest of the review at [Open Letters Monthly]


  1. Writers are frequently not nice people. The same may be said for composers. Beethoven's music is great, but he was unkind and extremely neurotic.

  2. Fascinating post, Perry. I wonder if the most notable artists aren't the ones who have some keen insight about their own selfish and neurotic ways. What a great renewable natural resource for any artist portraying humanity!

    I'm not sure I'd want to attribute these to Tolstoy, however. Well, maybe neurotic. I recall hearing about how he refused to even ride a bike in his later years, out of regard for the labour (relatively unrewarded) and/or suffering of another human, the bike maker. Winsome and noble and rare conviction, lived out.


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