Joseph Epstein (writer)

Joseph Epstein
Born (1937-01-09)January 9, 1937
Chicago, Illinois
Pen name Aristides
Occupation Essayist, short-story writer, editor, teacher
Language English
Nationality American
Ethnicity Jewish
Citizenship U.S.
Education B.A.
Alma mater University of Chicago
Genre Essay, short story, literary criticism
Notable awards National Humanities Medal
Years active 1975–present

Joseph Epstein (born January 9, 1937) is an essayist, short-story writer, and editor. From 1974 to 1998[1] he was the editor of the The American Scholar magazine.


Epstein was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1937. He graduated from Senn High School and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.[2] He received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Chicago and served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960. From 1972 to 2002, he was a lecturer in English and Writing at Northwestern University and is an Emeritus Lecturer of English there.

From 1974 to 1998 he served as editor of The American Scholar and wrote for it under the pseudonym Aristides.[3][4] The familiar essays he first published in that journal, and later collected into several books, earned him a reputation as the American successor to Max Beerbohm. He edited The Best American Essays (1993), the Norton Book of Personal Essays (1997), and Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature (2007). His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Commentary, Harper's, The New Criterion, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The Weekly Standard. His short stories were included in The Best American Short Stories 2007 and The Best American Short Stories 2009.[4] In 2003, he was awarded a National Humanities Medal by the National Endowment for the Humanities.[5]

Epstein's removal as editor of The American Scholar in 1998 (following a 1996 vote of the Phi Beta Kappa senate) was controversial.[6] Epstein later said that he was fired "for being insufficiently correct politically".[7] Some within Phi Beta Kappa attributed the senate's decision to a desire to attract a younger readership for the journal.[8]

Epstein's essay "Who Killed Poetry?", published in Commentary in 1988,[9]generated discussion in the literary community decades after its publication.[10]

In September 1970, Harper's Magazine published an article by Epstein called "The Struggle for Sexual Identity" that was criticized for its perceived homophobia.[11] Epstein wrote that he considered homosexuality "a curse, in a literal sense" and that his sons could do nothing to make him more ashamed than "if any of them were to become homosexual."[11][12] Gay activists characterized the essay as portraying every gay man the author met, or fantasized about meeting, as predatory, sex-obsessed, and a threat to civilization.[13] In the essay, he says that, if possible, "I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth", a statement that was interpreted by gay writer and editor Merle Miller as a call to genocide.[14] A sit-in took place at Harper's by members of the Gay Activists Alliance.[15][13]

In 2015 Epstein wrote an article for The Weekly Standard in which he mentioned the Harper's article from 1970. He wrote, "I am pleased the tolerance for homosexuality has widened in America and elsewhere, that in some respects my own aesthetic sensibility favors much homosexual artistic production... My only hope now is that, on my gravestone, the words Noted Homophobe aren’t carved."[16]

William F. Buckley Jr., in his review of Snobbery: The American Version, called Epstein "perhaps the wittiest writer (working in his genre) alive, the funniest since Randall Jarrell."[17] A writer for The Forward called him "perhaps the smartest American alive who also writes well."[7]


Epstein invented in the word "virtucrat" and first used it in an article for The New York Times Magazine.[18] He defined a virtucrat as "any man or woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain."[19] In his 2016 essay collection Wind Sprints, he defines it as a person "whose politics lend them the fine sense of elation that only false virtue makes possible."[18]

Selected works

Essay collections

Other non-fiction

Short-story collections

Short stories


  1. Widmer, Ted. "The American Scholar: THE SCHOLAR AT 75: An Educated Guess".
  2. Birnbaum, Robert (31 August 2003). "Joseph Epstein - Identity Theory". Identity Theory.
  3. "Joseph Epstein: Department of English, Northwestern University".
  4. 1 2 "Joseph Epstein". Contemporary Authors Online. Gale. 5 June 2015. Retrieved 4 June 2016.
  5. "Joseph Epstein". National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  6. Grenier, Cynthia (3 January 1998). "Conservatives on the Move". Highbeam.
  7. 1 2 Cohen, Joshua (25 September 2007). "Uncle Joe the Exquisite". Forward.
  8. Mahler, Jonathan (28 February 1998). "Fresh Vision for an Intellectual Journal: Diversity, Brevity, Even a Cover Picture". The New York Times.
  9. Epstein, Joseph (1988-08-01). "Who Killed Poetry?". Commentary.
  10. Novak, David (6 December 2012). "The Man Who Killed Poetry: Joseph Epstein And His Essays – Contemporary Poetry Review".
  11. 1 2 Larry P. Gross & James D. Woods, The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics (Columbia University Press, 1999), ISBN 978-0231104463, p. 595. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  12. Christopher Bram, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (Hachette Digital, 2012), ISBN 978-0446575980, p. 142. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  13. 1 2 David Ehrenstein (August 30, 2002). "Sexual Snobbery: The Texture of Joseph Epstein". LA Weekly.
  14. Emily Greenhouse (11 October 2012). "Merle Miller and the Piece That Launched a Thousand "It Gets Better" Videos". The New Yorker.
  15. Larry P. Gross, Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America (Columbia University Press, 2001), ISBN 978-0231119535, pp. 43ff. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  16. Joseph Epstein (18 May 2015). "The Unassailable Virtue of Victims: On the rise of Hillary Clinton and other underdogs". The Weekly Standard.
  17. Buckley, William F. (September 2002). "Who's he?".
  18. 1 2 Epstein, Joseph (2016). Wind Sprints. Edinburg, VA: Axios Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-160419-100-4.
  19. Joseph Epstein (2002). Snobbery: The American Version. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  20. The title is an allusion to Karl Shapiro's 1941 poem; see "Hospital". Poetry. 58 (4): 1. July 1941.
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