Joseph Epstein: Nostalgia for the Empire and the Closet

Lawrence of Arabia: In the closet and a servant of empire.

My previous essay about Commentary earned me a rebuke from a friend who happens to be a former contributor to that journal. I had suggested that Robert Alter was the only first-rate writer still contributing to Commentary.

What about Joseph Epstein? My friend asked. Or Terry Teachout? Or Ruth Wisse? Or Victor Hanson Davis? Or James Q. Wilson? Or Daniel Pipes?

Most of these are not names that make my heart beat faster when I see them plastered on a magazine cover but I’m happy to make exceptions for Terry Teachout and most especially for Joseph Epstein. I’ve praised both men repeatedly in book reviews.

Epstein is a top-notch personal essayist, who has revived the ruminative, free-ranging tradition of Montaigne and Hazlitt. Among more modern essayists, he’s the peer of Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal (not company he’d be completely comfortable with, sadly).  He’s also a very entertaining short story writer. Mind you, if literature were organized the way baseball was, Epstein wouldn’t be playing with the New York Yankees against heavy-hitters like Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant but would have to have to content himself with life on a farm team in Albany or Akron. Still, the Akron Aeros have some good players and Epstein’s fiction has given me a great deal of pleasure.


Epstein has his limits which can be seen most clearly in his literary criticism. One mark of a first rate literary critic is the ability to transcend partisan politics. Hugh Kenner was a conservative Catholic in the National Review mould, but he was wonderfully appreciative of Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen, left-liberal Jews with a strong Marxist past. The socialist Irving Howe was equally insightful, and even good-naturedly affectionate, when writing about Kipling. And Fredric Jameson’s Marxism hasn’t prevented him from being a persuasive advocate on behalf of Wyndham Lewis, who can fairly be described as a fascist fellow traveler.

Kenner, Howe, and Jameson all had strong political commitments but they also possessed the gift of empathy, the literary critic’s essential skill of entering into a writer’s mental universe and appraising it from within before passing judgment. For all his erudition, for all the wit and fluidity of his prose, Epstein lacks the ability to read empathetically, which leaves his critical essays severely limited.

If you know a writer’s politics you can pretty much figure out how Epstein will react to him or her. If a writer is right-wing or politically quiescent, Epstein will give them at least a respectful hearing and often high praise: the Esptein nod of approval has gone to Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin, Henry James, Barbara Pym, Max Beerbohm, James Gould Cozzens, Somerset Maugham, George Santayana, V.S. Naipaul and others of their ilk. But if a writer is a liberal or leftist, Epstein has nothing to offer but the back of his hand: he’s been scornful of Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, Pauline Kael, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, John Updike, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edmund Wilson, and like-minded souls. A kind of anti-leftism even infects Epstein’s appraisal of classic writers like Hazlitt.

The few exceptions to this rule are telling: Epstein did write essays scoring points against William F. Buckley and celebrating A.J. Leibling but that was when Epstein’s own politics were much more liberal than they are now. For many years Epstein was a member of the H.L. Mencken fan club, only letting his membership lapse when evidence of the extent and scabrousness of Mencken’s anti-Semitism proved too overwhelming to ignore. And Epstein has many times praised Theodore Dreiser, whose politics were too muddled to be easily categorized. But really, these are pretty minor exceptions.

Every literary judgment Epstein makes is heavily filtered through his political concerns. A good example of this is his essay on E.M. Forster, which ran earlier this year in The Weekly Standard (and recently got highlighted by Arts and Letters Daily). The essay essentially restates arguments Epstein made in his article “One Cheer for E.M. Forster” which was published in Commentary in 1985, later reprinted in Epstein’s collection Partial Payments. (Epstein’s conservative politics don’t prevent him from being an adept recycler). In both pieces, Epstein concludes that Forster is a minor writer because of his liberal politics. Near the end of the Weekly Standard essay Epstein write: “But in the end Forster’s chief contribution has been to that continuing project of reinforcing liberals’ feelings of self-virtue owing to their lovely imaginative sensitivity and courageous distaste for social injustice.”

Epstein is particularly upset by two aspects of Forster “emancipatory liberalism”: the novelist was an anti-imperialist who bolstered the cause of Indian independence and he was an important precursor to the gay liberation movement. Both of Epstein’s objections are worth examining in detail.


In his essay “Anglophilia, American Style” Epstein admits to feeling “nostalgia” for the British Empire, which he describes as “one of history’s grandest adventures.”

Given these Kipling-esque sentiments, perhaps rooted in too credulous a reading of Kim or a desire to emulate the life of T.E. Lawrence, Epstein has little use with a novelist who detailed the systematic cruelty of the British rule in India, as Forster did in A Passage to India. In the Weekly Standard, Epstein wrote, “Whatever one’s views of British imperialism, one has also to admit that Forster, the milquetoasty blocked novelist, the long-repressed homosexual, probably contributed, through A Passage to India, as much as anyone short of Gandhi, to justifying before the world Indian independence.”

In his Commentary piece, Epstein lays out the argument more explicitly:

And [the portrayal of the Anglo-Indians in A Passage to India] came through accompanied by serious political consequences….Paul Johnson, in Modern Times…writes: “In 1924 E.M. Forster published A Passage to India, a wonderfully insidious assault on the principle of the Raj, nearly turning upside-down the belief in British superiority and maturity which was the prime justification of the Indian Empire.”

Books are created in history, and through the events of history is our reading of them influenced. Here it must be noted that history has dissipated much of the glory of A Passage to India, by revealing that the treatment of the Indians by the British had been nowhere nearly so cruel, indeed murderous, as the treatment of the Indians by one another, beginning with the massacres following upon independence and continuing even today with the bloody dispute between the Indian government and the Sikhs.


There is much that can be said about Epstein’s arguments. I’ll start by noting that I have a personal interest in these issues because I was born in the Punjab in India, where some of the worst fighting during partition took place. Despite India’s troubled history, I have yet to meet a South Asian – be they Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, Christian or of any other form of belief or non-belief – who shares Epstein’s nostalgia for the grand adventure of the British empire. Nor indeed have I ever met any “native” from Asia or Africa who is nostalgic the way Epstein is. Among Indians there is a general awareness of a fact that Epstein is probably not cognizant of: that the violence of the partition grew out of the long-standing British policy of divide-and-conquer. But there is an easy response to such anti-imperialist arguments: the native’s don’t know what’s good for them. That’s what Kipling believed and perhaps Epstein of Chicago (heir to Lawrence of Arabia) would agree.

But if anecdotes are unconvincing perhaps scholarship will do the trick. If Epstein would take the trouble to read credible scholars of India (i.e. people not named Paul Johnson) he would discover the true extent of British cruelty. In particularly I would recommend Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize winning economist and political theorist. As Sen has demonstrated in many publications, notably the 1999 book Development as Freedom, throughout the period of British rule India was wracked by terrible famines which cost millions of lives. These famines were not just natural disasters but had a strong political dimension: because the British empire was un-democratic and committed to laissez-faire ideology, relief efforts were constantly half-hearted or thwarted. Sen draws extensive parallels with the well-known history of Ireland. Since gaining independence and democracy, both Ireland and India have conquered the problem of famines.

Sen’s compelling arguments can be usefully supplemented by the late Christopher Thorne, who in his masterful 1978 book Allies of a Kind, demonstrates that the ethnic hubris British leaders like Winston Churchill had real consequences on policy, notably in the low priority that was given to famine relief in the 1940s (at least a million Indians starved to death during those years). Tales of hunger and misery in India were often occasions for Churchill and his cronies to make quips. On one occasion, urged to release food stocks to alleviate a famine, “Churchill responded with a telegram asking why Gandhi hadn’t died yet.”

Thorne’s summary of how Churchill’s government handled of Indian policy is worth quoting: “It was not simply that these affairs showed up a side of Churchill that was ignorant, ugly and at times vicious… or that they revealed something of the way in which Cherwell approached the sufferings of the coloured peoples he found so distasteful. The Cabinet as a whole, with obvious exceptions such as Bevin, were wont to discuss India’s problems, be they starvation, communal strife, or the country’s economic structure, in a manner which, as we have seen, Wavell for one found appalling in its insouciance.”  

But perhaps Epstein would have a hard time trusting Sen and Thorne can both be described as academic liberals and hence slippery chaps, as Wodehouse or Kipling would say. In that case, perhaps he could listen to his fellow neo-conservative Nathan Glazer. In a letter published in the January 1986 issue of Commentary, Glazer took issue with the idea that India was better off under the Raj:

What can Joseph Epstein possibly mean by writing that E.M. Forster’s dislike of the “Anglo-Indians” (A Passage to India) “came through accompanied by serious political consequences”? Mr. Epstein goes on to quote Paul Johnson to the effect that the novel undermined “belief in British superiority and maturity.” Is the “serious political consequences” that Britain did not put forth the effort (which was in any case beyond it, materially and morally) to maintain rule over India after 1947? Isn’t that nonsense? At a time when the Western episode of colonialism is over, when no Western country has colonies, and all consider themselves better off without them, what would lead anyone to take up the defense of colonialism and regret its demise? Only, I am afraid, a narrow and distorted view of India…  


But Glazer can be dismissed just as easily as Sen and Thorne. He’s rather squishy as neo-conservatives go and he has an Indian-born wife, so maybe he’s gone native.

There’s one more voice to turn to for someone who won’t trust Sen, Thorne or Glazer. Andrew Roberts is a very conservative historian, who has been known to keep company with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Roberts is as much a fan of the British Empire as Epstein is. Yet in his 1994 books Eminent Churchillians, Roberts recorded this revealing story:

During the 1943 Bengal famine, in which over a million Indians died, [Churchill] reassured the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, that they would nevertheless continue to breed “like rabbits.” After such an outburst in 1944, Amery was prompted to tell the Prime Minister that he “didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s.”


The Bengalis who starved to death because of Churchill’s haughtiness probably did not think they were living through “one of history’s grandest adventures.” Interestingly, Amartya Sen is himself a survivor of the Bengal famine.

Given all these facts, I think Forster’s anti-imperialism looks much better than Epstein’s nostalgia for the grand adventure of Empire.

(As a side note, Epstein and Paul Johnson almost certainly over-estimate the political impact of Forster’s novel. Indeed Epstein contradicts himself by stating that Forster was second only to Gandhi in making the cause for independence while also saying that as late as 1943 Forster “a small-public writer, known chiefly to the cognescenti.” There were many other writers, both Indian and British, had more of an impact in discrediting the Raj than Forster.)


In his Commentary essay, Epstein explicitly insists that Foster should be read through the prism of sexual politics in a way that damages the writer’s reputation:


It is no longer possible to think of Forster as a writer who happened to have been a homosexual; now he must be considered a writer for whom homosexuality was the central, the dominant, fact in his life. Given this centrality, this dominance, it hardly seems wild to suggest that the chief impulse behind Forster’s novels, with their paeans and pleas for the life of the instincts, was itself homosexual….

As for his teaching about the instinctual life – the sanity of passion, the holiness of desire, and the rest of it – here, too, his side, that of emancipatory liberalism, has known no shortage of victories.  If, then, his writing today seems so thin, so hollow, and finally so empty, can it be in part because we have now all had an opportunity to view the progress of emancipationism in our lifetimes, the liberation that was the name of Forster’s most ardent desire, and know it to be itself thin, hollow, and finally rather empty?


I’m not sure that most readers would agree with Epstein in thinking that empancipatory liberalism, the great project that has given women control over their reproductive lives and overturned the laws that once made it a crime to practice gay sex, has been such a failure. But perhaps this is a good occasion to review Epstein’s larger relationship with gay rights and indeed gayness itself, both issues that has long troubled him.

“If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth,” Epstein wrote in a notorious 1970 Harper’s article.   “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 article was very controversial when it was first published and remains so today; it was to gay rights what Norman Podhoretz’s “My Negro Problem – and Ours” was to civil rights.

“That is an essay that has followed me around,” Epstein once told an interviewer. “I hope I don’t have a reputation as a homophobe, which is really a stupid word.”

Epstein’s twitchy discomfort with gays has occasionally led him to make near-libelous statements. “Two friends have told me about Richard Poirier’s performance at the MLA,” Epstein wrote in a letter to Robert B. Heilman on January 9, 1980. “I used to think him a silly twerpish fellow, but I suspect that things go further – I suspect that he really does want to bring down the house and make the world safe for pederasty.” (For the record, there is no evidence that the late Richard Poirier, an astute literary critic who edited the valuable journal Raritan, was a pederast. Epstein’s letter, and many other revealing and damaging correspondences, can be found in Robert B. Heilman: His Life and Letters, University of Washington Press, 2009).

Despite these comments it wouldn’t be quite fair to say that Epstein is a homophobe. I’m sure he has many gay friends. And indeed he’s willing to praise gay or sexually ambiguous writers so long as they are either politically conservative or apolitical, hence his high regard for Henry James, Willa Cather, Somerset Maugham, Marguerite Yourcenar, Marcel Proust, C.P. Cavafy, among others.  What Epstein can’t abide are gay writers who are open and proud of their sexuality such as Paul Goodman or Gore Vidal. Rather than homophobia, I think it’s more accurate to say that Epstein suffers from homo-unease, a feeling of discomfort at any overt references to gay sex, a desire for the good old days of the closet.

There is an interesting parallel between Epstein nostalgia for the Empire and his nostalgia for the closet. In both cases there is a curious tendency to idealize an institution that has been rendered forever obsolete by history. Epstein is a romancer of lost causes, a not uncommon form of conservative fantasy.

E.M. Forster is an interesting test case because he was closeted (homosexuality was a crime throughout his lifetime in England). He rarely made public references to his sexuality, aside from posthumously published works like Maurice. Still, Forster’s themes anticipate the gay liberation movement, which is why Epstein is now so dismissive of a novelist he once greatly admired.

Politics, not literary merit, is the core of Epstein’s objections to Forster.


Having spent so much time on Epstein, it might be worth essaying his larger importance. His way of thinking is not unique. He is a cherished contributor to the two leading neo-conservative journals, the Weekly Standard and Commentary. Both these magazines had a large — indeed incalculable — influence on the George W. Bush administration. And isn’t it the case that a nostalgia for empire and a nostalgia for the closet can be seen in many recent Republican policies, ranging from the war in Iraq to the desire to hold on to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule in the military? Which is another way of saying that Epstein is a much more deeply political writer than his graceful essays might let on.


11 thoughts on “Joseph Epstein: Nostalgia for the Empire and the Closet

  1. Great essay, Jeet.

    And I was amused by the ascending argumentative structure from you through Sen and Thorne to Glazer and Roberts.

  2. Mr. Epstein would also be well advised to read Mike Davis’s “Late Victorian Holocausts”, a thorough and disturbing account of the 19th century colonial famines caused by imperialist cruelty and doctrinaire economic policy.

  3. I have been thinking for a while about what Mr. Heer has written, both in *Gravitas* and in *sans everything*, about Joseph Epstein. I am always interested to read critical appraisals of Mr. Epstein’s work, which has influenced me greatly. Back in 1996, in an essay on *The New Criterion*, Heer said this:
    Joseph Epstein has become America’s premier familiar essayist in large part because he is supremely well-versed in the quotidian aspects of contemporary life. His essays are laced with idiomatic phrases, up-to-the-minute slang, brand names, jingles half-remembered from radio ads and Broadway shows, and hundreds of other knowing details observed in everyday life, including, of course, details taken from the movies and television. Epstein’s power as a writer derives from the fact that even when writing about highbrow matters he keeps his feet firmly planted in the real world. Epstein the essayist has enough common sense to realize that if you want to enjoy the pleasure of owning a dog, you have to tolerate a little [allow me to euphemize: dog droppings].
    I agree. Part of power of an Epstein essay derives from his awareness of, immersion in, and opinions about the “quotidian aspects of contemporary life.” This is why he comes to life on the page as a husband, father, (now former) teacher, friend; as a fan of Chicago sports teams, a connoisseur of mildly unhealthy food, an observer of life and death in his quiet neighborhood, a most fortunate, if not always visibly happy, fella.
    All the same, part of that power derives from his terrific understanding of literature. And this is my main reason for writing: to complain about Heer's maligning Epstein's work as a literary critic. I first read “Nostalgia for the Empire and the Closet” a few months ago and was dumbfounded. The best thing said about Epstein is that he remains “a top-notch personal essayist,” a “peer of Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal”; and that he is a “very entertaining short story writer.” (Even so, he is considered in this line a lightweight compared with such “heavy hitters” as Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. Poor Epstein isn’t even a bench player on a small-market team, a Chris Getz or a Matt Stairs of the literary set; no, he would “have to content himself with life on a farm team.”)
    But back to business. One of the main points of “Nostalgia for the Empire and the Closet” is that Epstein is unable to put aside his “political commitments” and judge writers on their expressly literary merits. (“If you know a writer’s politics you can pretty much figure out how Epstein will react to him or her.” “Every literary judgment Epstein makes is heavily filtered though his political concerns.”) Is this what it comes down to? Consider his critical essays. He’s written four books of them. Each contains about twenty essays. Each is about twenty pages long. Before he wrote about any author, he would read everything he or she wrote. He would also read biographies, criticism, and collections of letters. He paid his dues, you might say, and then some. Approximately 1600 pages about a multitude of writers; tens, probably hundreds, of thousands of pages of preparatory reading; and this–politics–is what it all comes down to? Politics?
    Heer examines Epstein's assessment of E. M. Forster. Quoted is the penultimate sentence of an essay published a year ago in *The Weekly Standard*: “But in the end Forster’s chief contribution has been to that continuing project of reinforcing liberals’ feeing of self-virtue owing to their lovely imaginative sensitivity and courageous distaste for social injustice.” The real point of the essay, it seems to me, comes in the last sentence: “For this, above all, E. M. Forster has become known as the great writer he most distinctly isn’t.” The problem, as I read Epstein, is not that Forster thought himself especially or exquisitely sensitive (and of course “considerate” and “plucky”). The problem is rather that contemporary readers and critics have inflated his reputation, precisely because they imagine themselves as greathearted as they take Forster to have been.
    Epstein is also faulted for his nostalgia for the British Empire and excoriated for referring to it as “one of history’s grand adventures.” If this is what Heer take as the main point of “Anglophilia, American Style,” then I say he has missed a great deal. But this, I fear, is exactly what has happened. Epstein is hectored (in 800 words) for failing to read “credible scholars of India” and to appreciate the malfeasance of the Empire. Heer then returns to Forster and his own anti-imperialism, the implication being that the supposedly “imperialist” Epstein holds Forster’s anti-imperialism against him and that this antipathy motivates the critic’s low estimation of the novelist.
    Heer's final point of attack is Epstein’s apparent “homo-unease”: “In his *Commentary* essay, Epstein explicitly insists that Foster [sic] should be read through the prism of sexual politics in a way that damages the writer’s reputation.” After quoting a couple of excerpts from the end of that essay, Heer reproaches Epstein for questioning the unquestionable blessings of emancipatory liberalism. What–isn’t he allowed a point of view? To Heer's credit, he acknowledges Epstein's “high regard for Henry James, Willa Cather, Somerset Maugham, Marguerite Yourcenar, Marcel Proust, C. P. Cavafy, among others.” But then comes the foolish assertion that “[w]hat Epstein can’t abide are gay writers who are open and proud of their sexuality such as Paul Goodman or Gore Vidal.” I’m afraid Heer has missed something important and it has, again, to do with Epstein's point of view. Sex–heterosexual sex, homosexual sex, interspecies sex; sex of whichever stripe and color and flavor you can name–sex, in fine, is not the big screaming deal for him that it is for some writers. Imagine a heterosexual Paul Goodman. Would Epstein sing his praises? Would a heterosexual Gore Vidal rival Max Beerbohm in his regard? Sounds ridiculous, I know.
    Reading “Nostalgia for the Empire and the Closet,” I found myself unable to recognize the man I have come to know in print over the past fifteen years.
    I appreciate the opportunity of conveying my deep disappointment.

  4. Normally comments like this are not of much use in an academic debate, but I know Joe, and he is one of the fairest and kindest people I’ve ever met. I’m not familiar with his pieces on India but with much of the other material you’re selectively quoting articles written 30, 40 years ago, one of them a private letter.

    Regarding to the degree society has changed in those decades, it might as well have been 300 or 400 years ago.

  5. I’m grateful to “John in Missouri” and Nick for their thoughtful comments.

    About John’s comment: “Sex–heterosexual sex, homosexual sex, interspecies sex; sex of whichever stripe and color and flavor you can name–sex, in fine, is not the big screaming deal for him that it is for some writers. Imagine a heterosexual Paul Goodman. Would Epstein sing his praises? Would a heterosexual Gore Vidal rival Max Beerbohm in his regard?” Well, I can think of at least one heterosexual writer who might be considered the equivalent of Paul Goodman and Vidal (in terms of sexual frankness, not in terms of talent) whom Mr. Epstein’s has (rightly) praised in the highest terms: James Joyce. So there does seem to be a double standard here, in the sense that sexual frankness is sometimes acceptably in heterosexuals but never in homosexuals.

    As to Nick’s comments, my essay was devoted to Epstein as a writer and public figure, not as a private man. I wouldn’t contest your testimony to his kindness and fairness.

  6. You really don’t know many gay people who read, do you. In a better world, Epstein would have been ostracized from the critical world in 1970, but no, we have to fawn over him.

  7. Truly absurd for anyone to consider the odious Joseph Epstein a good writer. He is the master of the cliche. Moreover, his trademark as a writer is condescension and archness. Most tellingly, while expressing contempt for homosexuals and homosexuality, he is notably effete and, indeed, seems very insecure about his sexuality, notwithstanding his failed marriages and multiple children. I am happy that Merle Miller’s beautiful and groundbreaking reply to Epstein’s loathsome essay in Harper’s in 1970 has recently been republished.

  8. I have a higher opinion of Epstein’s literary skills than you do, but am happy to hear that the Miller essay is being reprinted. Where can it be found?

  9. Merle Miller’s “On Being Different” has been republished in a Penguin Classics edition, with a foreword by Dan Savage and an afterword by Charles Kaiser. It is available from the publisher and from, which also offers it in a Kindle edition.

  10. Also, thanks for calling attention to Epstein’s correspondence with Heilman. I’ll have to look that up. As for Forster, he was a great writer whose works will be read as long as people appreciate astute observation and skillful technique. Epstein is simply a poseur. He has a very narrow and limited talent which is itself diminished by his ugly prejudices.

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