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.
I like to read and I like public transit. So I spend a lot of time reading on buses, trains and subways. In general reading in public doesn’t cause problems, although when I was on a subway in New York, a group of teenage boys started pointing at me and smirking while I was making my way through Herman Melville’s most famous novel. “Look at that: Moby Dick,” one of them said. “Dick! Ha!” He was immediately corrected by a more erudite friend: “Don’t be stupid — it’s about a whale.”
In my experience though, there are certain books you’d be well advised to avoid associating yourself with company with, at least in broad daylight and in front of a mob. Generally these are books with provocative titles and covers. Despite the popular adage, most people are willing to judge a book by its cover. A few examples of books that have caused trouble for me (and on occasion my friends).
1. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is of course a modern classic with a very striking cover, appropriately reminiscent of a World War II poster. But I had a student once who said a man on the subway gave her the evil eye for reading it, possibly motivated by the swastika on the cover. (Or could it be that the man was an anti-Semite?) Spiegelman has a real gift for eye-catching images, as evidenced by the many controversial covers he’s done for the New Yorker, including this one.
The great pianist Oscar Peterson.
According the Graeme Hamilton, writing in the National Post, the word “Canadian” is now used as a coded ethnic slur in the American south to refer to blacks:
The bigger mystery is how “Canadian” came to be code for black. An online directory of racial slurs defines Canadian as a “masked replacement” for black.
Last August, a blogger in Cincinnati going by the name CincyBlurg reported that a black friend from the southeastern U.S. had recently discovered that she was being called a Canadian. “She told me a story of when she was working in a shop in the South and she overheard some of her customers complaining that they were always waited on by a Canadian at that place. She didn’t understand what they were talking about and assumed they must be talking about someone else,” the blogger wrote.
“After this happened several times with different patrons, she mentioned it to one of her co-workers. He told her that ‘Canadian’ was the new derogatory term that racist Southerners were using to describe persons they would have previously referred to [with the N-word.]”