People of the Book
A glance at this issue’s table of contents features names that are well-known to you: Joseph Epstein, John J. Clayton, and Michael Rubin. Epstein has a dazzling essay on the meaning of death—which happens also to figure in Clayton’s beautiful short story, “O’Malley Recites the Kaddish.” Rubin, who appears regularly on our blog, has an illuminating review of a new work about the first American Arabists and their role in setting the course of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
All three have new books out featuring material originally published in Commentary. It has been the general practice of this and other magazines to forgo reviewing books whose contents have previously appeared in their pages, to avoid obvious ethical problems. But there’s another obvious problem created by this ethical rule, which is that it can deny readers the full proper exposure to work by writers with whom they are acquainted and whose work they have enjoyed in the past.
So I’m taking this space this month to urge you to buy and read their new books.
Epstein’s collection is A Literary Education and Other Essays, just out from Axios Press. Astonishingly, it is his 24th book; his first, Divorced in America, was published 40 years ago. Seventeen of the pieces collected here appeared in Commentary (and there is an essay about Commentary that appeared in the Weekly Standard). This volume confirms that Epstein is not only the greatest living American literary critic, but also the country’s foremost general essayist. He is, almost singlehandedly, holding aloft the flame for what used to be the honorable calling of “the man of letters.”
Michael Rubin’s remarkable new work is Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, published by Encounter Books. Rubin, who writes regularly for Commentary’s blog, takes on the idea that there is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained by “talking to our enemies” through a meticulous analysis of America’s efforts to do just that and how they have, in fact, set the nation and the world back. In the chapter entitled “Taking Tea with the Taliban,” which was our lead article in February 2010, Rubin tells the tragic and infuriating story of the State Department’s delusion that we could find common diplomatic ground with the barbarians who took over Afghanistan in the late 1990s—an approach that blinded us to the approaching danger of its alliance with al-Qaeda.
John J. Clayton’s Many Seconds into the Future: Ten Stories is just out from Texas Tech University Press. Five of these works of fiction, including the title story, appeared in these pages. Clayton lost his son, the wildly talented singer-songwriter Josh Clayton-Felt, to cancer in 2000. Josh was only 33. The subject running through this extraordinary collection is the transformative power of grief and loss—and how the mysteries of the universe are illuminated by the unwilling and unwanted confrontation with the most basic questions of human existence.
It is also a pleasure to report that our critic-at-large, Terry Teachout, has been awarded one of this year’s Bradley Prizes. The award comes with a stipend of $250,000 and honors in part Terry’s monthly contributions to Commentary dating back to 1995. Terry is a man of the arts in the same way that Joseph Epstein is a man of letters, as his stunning biographies of H.L. Mencken, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington make clear. He has transcended his study of the arts from the theater and music criticism with which he made his initial mark and has produced works of art himself—as an opera librettist and as a playwright with a successful off-Broadway staging of his one-man play Satchmo at the Waldorf.
As our founder, Elliot E. Cohen, wrote in Commentary’s inaugural issue in November 1945: “It goes without saying that the best magazine in the world will not solve our problems. But we have faith that a good magazine can help—by fairness, by searching out the truth, by encouraging fresh and free-ranging thinking, by bringing to bear upon our problems the resources of science, philosophy, religion, and the arts, by seeking out authentic voices and giving them open-house in which to be heard.” The writings of Michael Rubin, Joseph Epstein, John J. Clayton, and Terry Teachout all attest to our continuing commitment to Elliot Cohen’s faith.