Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Are you still writing?” he asked.

“I am,” I answered.

“What are you working on at the moment?”

“An autobiography,” I said.

“Interesting,” he replied. “Whose?”

The implication here, you will note, is that mine hasn’t been a life sufficiently interesting to merit an autobiography. The implication isn’t altogether foolish. Most autobiographies, at least the best autobiographies, have been written by people who have historical standing, or have known many important people, or have lived in significant times, or have noteworthy family connections or serious lessons to convey. I qualify on none of these grounds. Not that, roughly two years ago when I sat down to write my autobiography, I let that stop me.

An autobiography, to state the obvious, is at base a biography written by its own subject. But how is one to write it: as a matter of setting the record straight, as a form of confessional, as a mode of seeking justice, or as a justification of one’s life? “An autobiography,” wrote George Orwell, “is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Is this true? I prefer to think not.

Autobiography is a complex enterprise, calling for its author not only to know himself but to be honest in conveying that knowledge. “I could inform the dullest author how he might write an interesting book,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “Let him relate the events of his own life with Honesty, not disguising the feelings that accompanied them.” One of the nicest things about being a professor, it has been said, is that one gets to talk for fifty minutes without being interrupted. So one of the allurements of autobiography is that one gets to write hundreds of pages about that eminently fascinating character, oneself, even if in doing so one only establishes one’s insignificance.

The great autobiographies—of which there have not been all that many—have been wildly various. One of the first, that of the Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, is marked by an almost unrelieved braggadocio: No artist was more perfect, no warrior more brave, no lover more pleasing than the author, or so he would have us believe. Edward Gibbon’s autobiography, though elegantly written, is disappointing in its brevity. That of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, heavily striking the confessional note, might have been told in a booth to a priest. Ben Franklin’s autobiography is full of advice on how the rest of us should live. John Stuart Mill’s is astounding in its account of its author’s prodigiously early education, which began with his learning Greek under his father’s instruction at the age of three. Then there is Henry Adams’s autobiography, suffused with disappointment over his feeling out of joint with his times and the world’s not recognizing his true value. In Making It, Norman Podhoretz wrote an autobiography informed by a single message, which he termed a “dirty little secret,” namely that there is nothing wrong with ambition and that success, despite what leftist intellectuals might claim, is nothing to be ashamed of.

Please note that all of these are books written by men. Might it be that women lack the vanity required to write—or should I say “indulge in”—the literary act of autobiography? In Mary Beard’s Emperor of Rome, I recently read that Agrippina the Younger, the mother of Nero, wrote her autobiography, which has not survived, and which Mary Beard counts as “one of the great losses of all classical literature.” I wish that Jane Austen had written an autobiography, and so too George Eliot and Willa Cather. Perhaps these three women, great writers all, were too sensibly modest for autobiography, that least modest of all literary forms.

Autobiography can be the making or breaking of writers who attempt it. John Stuart Mill’s autobiography has gone a long way toward humanizing a writer whose other writings tend toward the coldly formal. Harold Laski wrote that Mill’s “Autobiography, in the end the most imperishable of his writings, is a record as noble as any in our literature of consistent devotion to the public good.”

If Mill’s autobiography humanized him, the autobiography of the novelist Anthony Trollope did for him something approaching the reverse. In An Autobiography, Trollope disdains the notion of an author’s needing inspiration to write well. He reports that “there was no day on which it was my positive duty to write for the publishers, as it was my duty to write reports for the Post Office,” where he had a regular job. “I was free to be idle if I pleased. But as I had made up my mind to undertake this second profession [that of novelist], I found it to be expedient to bind myself by certain self-imposed laws.” Trollope recounts—emphasis here on “counts”—that as a novelist he averages forty pages per week, at 250 words per page. He writes: “There are those who would be ashamed to subject themselves to such a taskmaster, and who think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till inspiration moves him. When I have heard such doctrine preached, I have hardly been able to repress my scorn.” Trollope then mentions that on the day after he finished his novel Doctor Thorne, he began writing his next novel, The Bertrams. For a long spell the literati refused to forgive Trollope for shearing inspiration away from the creation of literary art, for comparing the job of the novelist to a job at the post office. Only the splendid quality of his many novels eventually won him forgiveness and proper recognition.

A serious biography takes up what the world thinks of its subject, what his friends and family think of him, and—if the information is available in letters, diaries, journals, or interviews—what he thinks of himself. An autobiography is ultimately about the last question: what the author thinks of himself. Yet how many of us have sufficient self-knowledge to give a convincing answer? In her splendid novel Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar has Hadrian note: “When I seek deep within me for knowledge of myself what I find is obscure, internal, unformulated, and as secret as any complicity.” The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the scrupulously examined one is rare indeed.

My own life has not provided the richest fodder for autobiography. For one thing, it has not featured much in the way of drama. For another, good fortune has allowed me the freedom to do with my life much as I have wished. I have given my autobiography the title Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life, with the subtitle Especially If You’ve Had a Lucky Life. Now well along in its closing chapter, mine, I contend, has been thus far—here I pause to touch wood—a most lucky life.

My title derives from the story of Croesus, who ruled the country of Lydia from circa 585–547 b.c., and who is perhaps today best known for the phrase “rich as Croesus.” The vastly wealthy Croesus thought himself the luckiest man on earth and asked confirmation of this from Solon, the wise Athenian, who told him that in fact the luckiest man on earth was another Athenian who had two sons in that year’s Olympics. When Croesus asked who was second luckiest, Solon cited another Greek who had a most happy family life. Croesus was displeased but not convinced by Solon’s answers. Years later he was captured by the Persian Cyrus, divested of his kingdom and his wealth, and set on a pyre to be burned alive, before which he was heard to exclaim that Solon had been right. The moral of the story is, of course: Never say you have had a lucky life until you know how your life ends.

I have known serious sadness in my life. I have undergone a divorce. I have become a member of that most dolorous of clubs, parents who have buried one of their children. Yet I have had much to be grateful for. In the final paragraph of a book I wrote some years ago on the subject of ambition, I noted that “We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing.” In all these realms, I lucked out. I was born to intelligent, kindly parents; at a time that, though I was drafted into the army, allowed me to miss being called up to fight in any wars; and in the largely unmitigated prosperity enjoyed by the world’s most interesting country, the United States of America.

Writing is a form of discovery. Yet can even writing ferret out the quality and meaning of one’s own life? Alexis de Tocqueville, the endlessly quotable Tocqueville, wrote: “The fate of individuals is still more hidden than that of peoples,” and “the destinies of individuals are often as uncertain as those of nations.” Fate, destiny, those two great tricksters, who knows what they have in store for one, even in the final days of one’s life? I, for example, as late as the age of eighteen, had never heard the word “intellectual.” If you had asked me what a man of letters was, I would have said a guy who works at the post office. Yet I have been destined to function as an intellectual for the better part of my adult life, and have more than once been called a man of letters. Fate, destiny, go figure!

The first question that arises in writing one’s autobiography is what to include and what to exclude. Take, for starters, sex. In his nearly seven-hundred-page autobiography, Journeys of the Mind, the historian of late antiquity Peter Brown waits until page 581 to mention, in the most glancing way, that he is married. Forty or so pages later, the name of a second wife is mentioned. Whether he had children with either of these wives, we never learn. But then, Brown’s is a purely intellectual autobiography, concerned all but exclusively with the development of the author’s mind and those who influenced that development.

My autobiography, though less than half the length of Brown’s, allowed no such luxury of reticence. Sex, especially when I was an adolescent, was a central subject, close to a preoccupation. After all, boys—as I frequently instructed my beautiful granddaughter Annabelle when she was growing up—are brutes. I came of age BP, or Before the Pill, and consummated sex, known in that day as “going all the way,” was not then a serious possibility. Too much was at risk—pregnancy, loss of reputation—for middle-class girls. My friends and I turned to prostitution.

Apart from occasionally picking up streetwalkers on some of Chicago’s darker streets, prostitution for the most part meant trips of sixty or so miles to the bordellos of Braidwood or Kankakee, Illinois. The sex, costing $3, was less than perfunctory. (“Don’t bother to take off your socks or that sweater,” one was instructed.) What was entailed was less sensual pleasure than a rite of passage, of becoming a man, of “losing your cherry,” a phrase I have only recently learned means forgoing one’s innocence. We usually went on these trips in groups of five or six in one or another of our fathers’ cars. Much joking on the way up and even more on the way back. Along Chicago’s Outer Drive, which we took home in those days, there was a Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer sign that read, “Have you had it lately?,” which always got a good laugh.

I like to think of myself as a shy pornographer, or, perhaps better, a sly pornographer. By this I mean that in my fiction and where necessary in my essays I do not shy away from the subject of sex, only from the need to describe it in any of its lurid details. So I have done in my autobiography. On the subject of sex in my first marriage (of two), for example, I say merely, “I did not want my money back.” But, then, all sex, if one comes to think about it, is essentially comic, except of course one’s own.

On the inclusion-exclusion question, the next subject I had to consider was money, or my personal finances. Financially I have nothing to brag about. In my autobiography I do, though, occasionally give the exact salaries—none of them spectacular—of the jobs I’ve held. With some hesitation (lest it seem boasting) I mention that a book I wrote on the subject of snobbery earned, with its paperback sale, roughly half-a-million dollars. I fail to mention those of my books that earned paltry royalties, or, as I came to think of them, peasantries. In my autobiography, I contented myself with noting my good fortune in being able to earn enough money doing pretty much what I wished to do and ending up having acquired enough money not to worry overmuch about financial matters. Like the man said, a lucky life.

If I deal glancingly in my autobiography with sex and personal finances, I tried to take a pass on politics. My own political development is of little interest. I started out in my political life a fairly standard liberal—which in those days meant despising Richard Nixon—and have ended up today contemptuous of both our political parties: Tweedledum and Tweedledumber, as the critic Dwight Macdonald referred to them. Forgive the self-congratulatory note, but in politics I prefer to think myself a member in good standing of that third American political party, never alas on the ballot, the anti-BS party.

Of course, sometimes one needs to have a politics, if only to fight off the politics of others. Ours is a time when politics seems to be swamping all else: art, education, journalism, culture generally. I have had the dubious distinction of having been “canceled,” for what were thought my political views, and I write about this experience in my autobiography. I was fired from the editorship of Phi Beta Kappa’s quarterly magazine, the American Scholar—a job I had held for more than twenty years—because of my ostensibly conservative, I suppose I ought to make that “right-wing,” politics. My chief cancellers were two academic feminists and an African-American historian-biographer, who sat on the senate, or governing board, of Phi Beta Kappa.

The official version given out by Phi Beta Kappa for my cancellation—in those days still known as a firing—was that the magazine was losing subscribers and needed to seek younger readers. Neither assertion was true, but both currently appear in the Wikipedia entry under my name. The New York Times also printed this “official” but untrue version of my cancellation. In fact, I was canceled because I had failed to run anything in the magazine about academic feminism or race, both subjects that had already been done to death elsewhere and that I thought cliché-ridden and hence of little interest for a magazine I specifically tried to keep apolitical. During my twenty-two years at the American Scholar, the name of no current United States president was mentioned. If anything resembling a theme emerged during my editorship, it was the preservation of the tradition of the liberal arts, a subject on which I was able to acquire contributions from Jacques Barzun, Paul Kristeller, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Frederick Crews, and others.

That I was fired not for anything I had done but for things I had failed to do is an indication of how far we had come in the realm of political correctness. I take up this topic in my autobiography, one theme of which is the vast changes that have taken place in American culture over my lifetime. A notable example is an essay on homosexuality that I wrote and published in Harper’s in 1970, a mere fifty-three years ago. The essay made the points that we still did not know much about the origin of male homosexuality, that there was much hypocrisy concerning the subject, that homosexuals were living under considerable social pressure and prejudice, and that given a choice, most people would prefer that their children not be homosexual. This, as I say, was in 1970, before the gay liberation movement had got underway in earnest. The essay attracted a vast number of letters in opposition, and a man named Merle Miller, who claimed I was calling for genocide of homosexuals, wrote a book based on the essay. Gore Vidal, never known for his temperate reasoning, claimed my argument was ad Hitlerum. (Vidal, after contracting Epstein-Barr virus late in life, claimed that “Joseph Epstein gave it to me.”) I have never reprinted the essay in any of my collections because I felt that it would stir up too much strong feeling. For what it is worth, I also happen to be pleased by the greater tolerance accorded homosexuality in the half century since my essay was published.

The larger point is that today neither Harper’s nor any other mainstream magazine would dare to publish that essay. Yet a few years after the essay was published, I was offered a job teaching in the English Department of Northwestern University, and the year after that, I was appointed editor of the American Scholar. Today, of course, neither job would have been available to me.

Do these matters—my cancellation from the American Scholar, my unearned reputation as a homophobe—come under the heading of self-justification? Perhaps so. But then, what better, or at least more convenient, place to attempt to justify oneself than in one’s autobiography?

Many changes have taken place in my lifetime, some for the better, some for the worse, some whose value cannot yet be known. I note, for example, if not the death then the attenuation of the extended family (nephews, nieces, cousins) in American life. Whereas much of my parents’ social life revolved around an extensive cousinage, I today have grandnephews and grandnieces living on both coasts whom I have never met and probably never shall. I imagine some of them one day being notified of my death and responding, “Really? [Pause] What’s for dinner?”

I take up in my autobiography what Philip Rieff called, in his book of this title, the Triumph of the Therapeutic, a development that has altered child-rearing, artistic creation, and much else in our culture. Although the doctrines of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and others are no longer taken as gospel, their secondary influence has conquered much of modern culture. My parents’ generation did not hold with therapeutic culture, which contends that the essentials of life are the achievement of self-esteem and individual happiness, replacing honor, courage, kindness, and generosity.

In my autobiography, I note that when my mother was depressed by her knowledge that she was dying of cancer, a friend suggested that there were support groups for people with terminal diseases, one of which might be helpful. I imagined telling my mother about such groups, and her response: “Let me see,” she is likely to have said. “You want me to go into a room with strangers, where I will listen to their problems and then I’ll tell them mine, and this will make me feel better.” Pause. “Is this the kind of idiot I’ve raised as a son?”

Then there is digital culture, the verdict on which is not yet in. Digital culture has changed the way we read, think, make social connections, do business, and so much more. I write in my autobiography that in its consequences digital culture is up there with the printing press and the automobile. Its influence is still far from fully fathomed.

One of my challenges in writing my autobiography was to avoid seeming to brag about my quite modest accomplishments. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle writes: “Speaking at length about oneself, making false claims, taking the credit for what another has done, these are signs of boastfulness.” I tried not to lapse into boasting. Yet at one point I quote Jacques Barzun, in a letter to me, claiming that as a writer I am in the direct line of William Hazlitt, though in some ways better, for my task—that of finding the proper language to establish both intimacy and critical distance—is in the current day more difficult than in Hazlitt’s. At least I deliberately neglected to mention that, in response to my being fired from the American Scholar, Daniel Patrick Moynihan flew an American flag at half-mast over the Capitol, a flag he sent to me as a souvenir. Quoting others about my accomplishments, is this anything other than boasting by other means? I hope so, though even now I’m not altogether sure.

I have a certain pride in these modest accomplishments. Setting out in life, I never thought I should publish some thirty-odd books or have the good luck to continue writing well into my eighties. The question for me as an autobiographer was how to express that pride without preening. The most efficient way, of course, is never to write an autobiography.

Why, then, did I write mine? Although I have earlier characterized writing as a form of discovery, I did not, in writing my autobiography, expect to discover many radically new things about my character or the general lineaments of my life. Nor did I think that my life bore any lessons that were important to others. I had, and still have, little to confess; I have no hidden desire to be spanked by an NFL linebacker in a nun’s habit. A writer, a mere scribbler, I have led a largely spectatorial life, standing on the sidelines, glass of wine in hand, watching the circus pass before me.

Still, I wrote my autobiography, based in a loose way on Wordsworth’s notion that poetry arises from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Writing it gave me an opportunity to review my life at the end of my life in a tranquil manner. I was able to note certain trends, parallels, and phenomena that have marked my life and set my destiny.

The first of these, as I remarked earlier, was the fortunate time in which I was born, namely the tail end of the Great Depression—to be specific, in 1937. Because of the Depression, people were having fewer children, and often having them later. (My mother was twenty-seven, my father thirty at my birth.) Born when it was, my generation, though subject to the draft—not, in my experience of it, a bad thing—danced between the wars: We were too young for Korea, too old for Vietnam. We were also children during World War II, the last war the country fully supported, which gave us a love of our country. Ours was a low-population generation, untroubled by the vagaries of college admissions or the trauma of rejection by the school of one’s choice. Colleges, in fact, wanted us.

Or consider parents, another fateful phenomenon over which one has no choice. To be born to thoughtless, or disagreeable, or depressed, or deeply neurotic parents cannot but substantially affect all one’s days. Having a father who is hugely successful in the world can be as dampening to the spirit as having a father who is a failure. And yet about all this one has no say. I have given the chapter on my parents the title “A Winning Ticket in the Parents Lottery,” for my own parents, though neither went to college, were thoughtful, honorable, and in no way psychologically crushing. They gave my younger brother and me the freedom to develop on our own; they never told me what schools to attend, what work to seek, whom or when to marry. I knew I was never at the center of my parents’ lives, yet I also knew I could count on them when I needed their support, which more than once I did, and they did not fail to come through. As I say, a winning ticket.

As one writes about one’s own life, certain themes are likely to emerge that hadn’t previously stood out so emphatically. In my case, one persistent motif is that of older boys, then older men, who have supported or aided me in various ways. A boy nearly two years older than I named Jack Libby saw to it that I wasn’t bullied or pushed around in a neighborhood where I was the youngest kid on the block. In high school, a boy to whom I have given the name Jeremy Klein taught me a thing or two about gambling and corruption generally. Later in life, men eight, nine, ten, even twenty or more years older than I promoted my career: Hilton Kramer in promoting my candidacy for the editorship of the American Scholar, Irving Howe in helping me get a teaching job (without an advanced degree) at Northwestern, John Gross in publishing me regularly on important subjects in the Times Literary Supplement, Edward Shils in ways too numerous to mention. Something there was about me, evidently, that was highly protégéable.

I haven’t yet seen the index for my autobiography, but my guess is that it could have been name-ier. I failed, for example, to include my brief but pleasing friendship with Sol Linowitz. Sol was the chairman of Xerox, and later served the Johnson administration as ambassador to the Organization of American States. He also happened to be a reader of mine, and on my various trips to Washington I was often his guest at the F Street Club, a political lunch club where he reserved a private room in which we told each other jokes, chiefly Jewish jokes. I might also have added my six years as a member of the National Council of the National Endowment for the Arts, whose members included the actors Robert Stack and Celeste Holm, the Balanchine dancer Arthur Mitchell, Robert Joffrey, the soprano Renée Fleming, the novelist Toni Morrison, the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, the architect I. M. Pei, the painter Helen Frankenthaler, and other highly droppable names.

Confronting one’s regrets is another inescapable element in writing one’s autobiography. Ah, regrets: the red MG convertible one didn’t buy in one’s twenties, the elegant young Asian woman one should have asked to dinner, the year one failed to spend in Paris. The greater the number of one’s regrets, the grander their scope, the sadder, at its close, one’s life figures to be. I come out fairly well in the regrets ledger. I regret not having studied classics at university, and so today I cannot read ancient Greek. I regret not having been a better father to my sons. I regret not asking my mother more questions about her family and not telling my father what a good man I thought he was. As regrets go, these are not minor, yet neither have I found them to be crippling.

Then there is the matter of recognizing one’s quirks, or peculiar habits. A notable one of mine, acquired late in life, is to have become near to the reverse of a hypochondriac. I have not yet reached the stage of anosognosia, or the belief that one is well when one is ill—a stage, by the way, that Chekhov, himself a physician, seems to have attained. I take vitamins, get flu and Covid shots, and watch what I eat, but I try to steer clear of physicians. This tendency kicked in not long after my decades-long primary care physician retired. In his The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Bill Bryson defines good health as the health enjoyed by someone who hasn’t had a physical lately. The ancients made this point more directly, advising bene caca et declina medicos (translation on request). For a variety of reasons, physicians of the current day are fond of sending patients for a multiplicity of tests: bone density tests, colonoscopies, biopsies, X-rays of all sorts, CT scans, MRIs, stopping only at SATs. I am not keen to discover ailments that don’t bother me. At the age of eighty-seven, I figure I am playing with house money, and I have no wish to upset the house by prodding my health in search of imperfections any more than is absolutely necessary.

The older one gets, unless one’s life is lived in pain or deepest regret, the more fortunate one feels. Not always, not everyone, I suppose. “The longer I live, the more I am inclined to the belief that this earth is used by other planets as a lunatic asylum,” said George Bernard Shaw, who lived to age ninety-four. Though the world seems to be in a hell of a shape just now, I nonetheless prefer to delay my exit for as long as I can. I like it here, continue to find much that is interesting and amusing, and have no wish to depart the planet.

Still, with advancing years I have found my interests narrowing. Not least among my waning interests is that in travel. I like my domestic routine too much to abandon it for foreign countries where the natives figure to be wearing Air Jordan shoes, Ralph Lauren shirts, and cargo pants. Magazines that I once looked forward to, many of which I have written for in the past, no longer contain much that I find worth reading. A former moviegoer, I haven’t been to a movie theater in at least a decade. The high price of concert and opera tickets has driven me away. The supposedly great American playwrights—Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee—have never seemed all that good to me, and I miss them not at all. If all this sounds like a complaint that the culture has deserted me, I don’t feel that it has. I can still listen to my beloved Mozart on discs, read Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Willa Cather, and the other great novelists, watch the splendid movies of earlier days on Turner Classics and HBO—live, in other words, on the culture of the past.

“Vho needs dis?” Igor Stravinsky is supposed to have remarked when presented with some new phenomena of the avant-garde or other work in the realm of art without obvious benefit. “Vho needs dis?” is a question that occurred to me more than once or twice as I wrote my autobiography. All I can say is that those who read my autobiography will read of the life of a man lucky enough to have devoted the better part of his days to fitting words together into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into essays and stories on a wide variety of topics. Now in his autobiography all the sentences and paragraphs are about his own life. He hopes that these sentences are well made, these paragraphs have a point, and together they attain to a respectable truth quotient, containing no falsehoods whatsoever. He hopes that, on these modest grounds at least, his autobiography qualifies as worth reading.

Joseph Epstein is author of Gallimaufry, a collection of essays and reviews.

Image by Museum Rotterdam on Wikimedia Commons, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines