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Looks can be deceiving. Don’t judge a book by its cover. The grass isn’t always greener. Insert your line here for responses to the presumption that someone has it better, or that some situation is better.

My comment as has always been that in looking at others who on the surface seem to have it all figured out, we ascribe perfection or near perfection to situations that aren’t as great as we imagine. As in, on the surface all marriages seem so loving, and all parents seem so confident and happy. Only for life to teach us that looks most certainly can be deceiving.

I found myself thinking about these things while reading the great Joseph Epstein’s excellent new memoir, Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life: Especially If You’ve Had a Lucky Life. I’ve been reading Epstein’s fabulous columns in the Wall Street Journal for years, I’ve read one of his books (about charm, review here) but plan to read many more, and I say this as a way of acknowledging that in reading him all of this time, I developed a perception of him that has run counter to my reply that an individual’s surface qualities rarely tell the whole story.

In my imagining, Epstein grew up in a house full of deep conversations about big ideas, that he got straight As in school before attending a prominent university of the Ivy League variety, and that he subsequently married one woman and raised with this woman really well-behaved, really wise kids. About Epstein, I assumed he’s lived a life free of the warts and bad decisions that shape the lives of so many. Epstein’s brilliant writing quite simply gave me the impression that he was different, that his life had been largely free of the personal frailty and failings that define the lives of so many. 

Which is one of many reasons his memoir is so good. Underneath Epstein’s brilliance is a real person, someone whose actual life has been reflective of my view that it’s a mistake to ascribe excellent decisions, ease, and eternal happiness to most anyone. Charmed lives are a myth. Memory says that in a book review that Epstein himself once wrote about a book covering the life of Cary Grant, that Epstein wrote something of a similar, knowing bent, that Grant’s life separate from the image wasn’t so great, nor was Cary Grant actually Cary Grant in the figurative sense. Finally getting to the point (?), I’d without thinking deeply about it thought that Epstein had lived the intellectual version of the life that people imagined Grant had lived.

In reality, and at risk of being seriously trite, life is real. It’s messy at times. While Epstein happily contends that his own life has been defined by “extraordinarily good luck, in the time in which I was born, in the parents to whom I was born, in my education, and much more,” all is perhaps not as it may seem? For instance, he writes that “my brother and I were never at the center of my mother’s or father’s lives,” and that “the parents of our generation were nowhere near so child-centered as subsequent generations of parents.” More on the latter in a bit.

About his brother, Epstein somewhat casually notes that he hasn’t been in touch with him in years, and that his mother never read any of his books. To be clear, I’m not revealing these anecdotes to question the title of Epstein’s book, or his frequent assertions about a lucky life that continues to this day. I merely mention them as a way of hopefully bolstering Epstein’s point that even the very lucky lives have their serious warts, that all once again isn’t as it seems, but that the unfortunate, sad and tragic isn’t an excuse for individuals to wallow in what’s unfortunate. And this is true for everyone. In my case, I always knew I was at the center of the lives of my parents (born four and six years after Epstein), but would guess they’ve likely not read my books either!

Ok, but wasn’t Epstein raised by extreme intellectuals? It turns out no. While his father was a great salesman, and owned his own business such that the Chicagoland-based Epsteins were “petit bourgeois,” he didn’t grow up having discussions about War and Peace, or Crime and Punishment, or the deep thoughts of high-end policy writers. Epstein reports that “I have no recollection of ever having brought a book home to study,” and this reflected in his grades: at Nicholas Senn High School he recalls that he “rarely received a grade above a C.” During a senior year train trip to Washington, D.C., Epstein admits that “I never left the train to visit the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and other national buildings and monuments, but remained aboard with friends playing cards.”Most of Epstein’s intellectual evolution took place years after leaving home.

Back to his parents, business was on his father’s mind, including aphorisms like “Always keep a low overhead,” “Never run away from business,” and “You can’t argue with success.” Epstein argued with the latter while embracing the former (“I still find it hard to turn down a writing assignment” – he’ll be hearing from me…), plus they argued politics, including the merits (or lack thereof) of a balanced budget. Epstein’s father was in favor of balance, while his son was not. At least in his twenties. He concludes in his eighties that his father “turned out to be right: all things considered, balanced is better.” Epstein the writer should have stuck to his guns. It matters not a bit how wealth is extracted from the private sector (whether through taxes or borrowing), the only thing that matters is how much is extracted. In other words, an annual budget of $5 trillion that is in balance is much more freedom sapping and economically crippling than an annual budget of $1 trillion where $500 billion of it is borrowed.

As for Epstein’s mother, she took what Epstein describes as “the commercial course”: typing, dictation, bookkeeping, etc. Which means Epstein’s mother took practical courses, and realistically the only relevant ones. I’m sorry, but learnedness is a choice, not an effect of education. Typing remains the most valuable high school course I ever took.

Even at University of Illinois, Epstein was hardly a deep-in-thought type. He was even kicked out after taking part in a plan to sell copies of a stolen exam to different fraternities. The good news is that life was different then? Instead of a career or education killer (that’s probably not even true today, thankfully), Epstein eventually moved on to the University of Chicago, which truly changed him. At least that’s what he says. Epstein writes that after a year there, “I no longer believed that success in life was marked by large bank accounts, handsome houses in approved neighborhoods, flashy cars.” My guess is that Epstein didn’t require time at Chicago to change his views of life, but it seemingly accelerated the process. Someone who formerly couldn’t be bothered to bring books home, someone whose high school years were defined by “gambling, whoring, bugging, smoking, laughing,” was suddenly deeply immersed in great books and deep thought. And for this, we get to enjoy endlessly good and entertaining writing.

At the same time, there was still a life to be lived. Epstein was drafted into the Army, but thankfully not at a time of war. About the latter, he wrote that “engaging in war is viewed differently if some of those boots were to be filled by your own youthful children and grandchildren.” He adds that “A truly American military, inclusive of all social classes, would cause politicians and voters to be selective in choosing which battles are worth fighting and at what expense.” Amen. Thousands of times over. About this, I DO think some of the hawkishness on the U.S. right is rooted in the reality that the children and relatives close to the laptop hawks aren’t as likely to be filling the proverbial boots on the ground. In my case, I’m a Cobdenite. I’m a believer that free trade is the greatest foreign policy that mankind ever conceived, and that we should be unilaterally opening the U.S. up to all foreign production, including social media sites like TikTok that have conservatives so anxious. My view is that if the horrors of war were more evenly spread across all U.S. social classes, that more would share my views. Let’s call TikTok a peaceful shield of sorts, and one made that way by its immense popularity in the U.S.

While in the Army, and after Fort Hood in Killeen, TX, Epstein was transferred to Little Rock, AR. It was from Arkansas that Epstein published his first magazine article (on race relations for the New Leader), but for the purposes of this review, it’s where Epstein met his first wife. Notable here is that while this was Epstein’s first marriage, it was his wife’s third. She would eventually have five husbands. She brought two buys into the marriage. Epstein reports that his father objected based on age and religion, and that surprised me. Really, the whole marriage surprised me in light of the Epstein readers know now. It just didn’t sound like him. I don’t mean this critically. See the front of this review to understand what I mean. Epstein’s writing screams wise, but in this case a very young Epstein made a marital choice that doesn’t sound like his opinion pieces. Life is bumpy, which is the point. Don’t judge books by their cover, right?

Epstein’s will surprise you because even the lucky lives their difficult periods. As the previous paragraph alludes, Epstein’s first marriage didn’t last. In his words, marriages of his era “have been our second marriages.” As mentioned earlier, I ascribed what Epstein describes as “real marriage” to him on the first try. Except that no one is as they seem. I also imagined Epstein the eternally doting parent, but by Epstein’s own admission, “I am one of those fellows for whom work comes first – always had been, still am. A full-time husband or, for that matter, full-court press father, I could never be.” I imagined differently. In writing what I imagined, my hope once again is that my imaginings won’t be read as disappointment. No. I again believe that we frequently and errantly imagine perfection within others that doesn’t exist. Which means I’m the person I’m describing in that I do it too.

Epstein’s first wife as mentioned already had two boys, and it’s very had to contemplate what their mother’s troubles must have meant for them. Epstein also had two boys with the first wife. One became a big success in financial services, but the other, Burt, died of an overdose. Burt fathered a child before the overdose, but the ever truthful Epstein admits he wouldn’t see this grandchild at first. Eventually they had a loving and enriching grandfather/granddaughter relationship, but yes, I was still surprised to read there was ever a time he wouldn’t see her. Again, his life wasn’t what I expected considering such occasional sadness (Burt’s overdose, no contact with stepsons, a suicide admittedly before he was born of Epstein’s mother’s father), but Epstein’s willingness to share the difficult parts speaks yet again to what a great memoir it is. While he views his life as somewhat “emblematic of the times,” but also very lucky, he’s yet again making the crucial point to people of all ages that a great and lucky life is not without extreme difficulty.

It brings to mind David Frum’s book on the 1970s, How We Got Here. This was the first book (I read it when I was 30, and still single) I ever read that said “love” wasn’t a fairy tale, that generations past in the U.S. had expected love to be a lot of work, and frequently bereft of all the “soulmate” stuff, the feeling stuff. Maybe this is Epstein’s point? While life is never easy, it seems he’s of the old mindset that it’s supposed to be hard at times. Which is right. He writes that “mine was a happy childhood, lived on playgrounds.” I read the latter, and found myself wanting many others to read his book, Jonathan Haidt in particular.

Haidt can be found not infrequently on the same editorial page that Epstein can be found on, and because he can be, I’ve had occasion to rebut his pessimism about today’s youth more than once. Haidt is looking for victims. While most couldn’t analyze the psyche of the street they live on, Haidt claims an ability via endless academic studies to analyze a whole generation of young people. He says smartphones have made young people depressed, anti-social, etc. This digression is important mainly because I’ll wager Epstein smirks at Haidt’s alarmism.

Again, warts and all he felt his childhood was happy, and lucky, as has his life been since. Crucial here is that Epstein came up in what he describes as “non-therapeutic age.” Yes!!! Here’s hoping Haidt finds time in between fawning media appearances and book reviews to read Epstein. He then might see that depression, shame about one’s body, and a desire for solitude didn’t begin with the iPhone, Instagram and texting. Neither did depression. Childhood has always been a challenge, but in non-therapeutic ages kids weren’t so thoroughly analyzed. No doubt Epstein had his down moments too as a teen, but in his era there wasn’t enough wealth to support the work of people like Haidt (nor admittedly my work, nor Epstein’s!) and those creating the studies Haidt cites about how allegedly sad and isolated young people are. Basically Epstein got through his teen years intact, as most do. Rest assured that the Gen Zers whose alleged sadness has Haidt anxious will similarly get through the difficulties of being a teen, only to thrive as past American generations have. Today’s affected, occasionally depressed, smartphone obsessed teens will live to have their own worries about their own kids, only for future Haidts to feed their needless alarmism about the technology that will surely replace the smartphone, Facebook and texting. If we live in a therapeutic age now, imagine the future!

Which brings up a quibble with Epstein. While there’s no disagreement that today’s youth are way over-analyzed, he writes of children brought up today as “eminently fragile creatures.” I’d like to think he could be convinced otherwise. Young people as fragile, lazy, entitled, and countless other pejoratives is as old as American youth is. It’s called progress. In a nation defined by near constant wealth creation dating back to its beginning, it’s only natural that young people appear soft (or are raised softly) in comparison to their elders. Surely Epstein has read “A Message to Garcia”? The point here is that even the grandparents of the alleged “Greatest Generation” were viewed as soft and lazy and unable to take orders. Progress yet again. If American youth are ever viewed as serious and hard, we’ll know we’re in decline.

Along the lines of progress, it seems Epstein’s successful father couldn’t quite grasp that his son could be paid for his thoughts. About this, let’s call “they pay you to do that?” the six most bullish words in the English language. Not long before Epstein’s father died, and while in the car with him, Epstein told him he’d been invited to speak at the University of Pennsylvania. The fee was $5,000 for a fifty minute talk. Dad was astonished it seems, worried and skeptical too. In Epstein’s words, “The country had to be in one hell of a sorry condition if they were passing out that kind of dough for mere talk from his son.” Yes! Progress. As wealth grows, the range of ways we can earn it grows, as do the range of ways that we can showcase our intelligence in the workplace. What had Epstein pere skeptical should have had him wildly optimistic.

Why was Epstein’s father “never a very engaged parent”? It’s a question I ask over and over again, and have been asking it long before reading Epstein’s memoir. Why did The Great Santini resonate with my dad’s generation (my dad, USNA ’65, had a rather militaristic, Great Santini-style father who was USNA ’37), but why would it not resonate with the young people of today? Epstein’s father was by no means at all mean, but clearly his parenting style was different. I keep asking this because I’m writing a book called The Reluctant Father. My own guess is that the answer is economic. Life really and truly was much more uncertain long ago, and this reflected in how parents parented. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think parents helicopter nowadays because they can. Yes, progress.

Some readers of this review, or analysis, or self-analysis within an analysis, are no doubt wondering (assuming they’ve read this far) when – if ever – the alleged reviewer will get to Epstein’s wonderful writing. It’s a reasonable question, but then Epstein has published a memoir, and there’s much to be taken from it that has relevance beyond the writing.

Epstein writes a fifth of the way through the book that “no new cars were produced during the war.” He was writing about WWII. Readers know the reason why. Production was directed toward war materials. This requires prominent mention simply because economists who should surely know better (?) claim near-monolithically that WWII and all the spending ended the Great Depression. Such a view, in addition to being horrific, surely insults stupid.

As Epstein makes plain, production was much less market-driven during the war, and far more government driven. And the production was geared toward weaponry meant to kill and maim, all the while destroying wealth. Which is a reminder that war is by its very name what crushes economic growth. It’s not just that we’re killing potential customers while losing our own best and brightest, it’s that we’re exterminating the very “hands” and “minds” around the world that we, if there were no war, could work in concert with on the way to great productivity leaps.

Taking this further, in writing about his Judaism, Epstein grew up feeling he was part of “a very superior club, one whose members over the centuries survived the most vicious persecutions, while accounting for some of the world’s most impressive scientific, artistic and intellectual achievements.” And WWII was particularly hard on members of this Club. Stop and think about this with the popular view among economists that WWII was economically stimulative top of mind. Can they be serious? What could the economy have done in the 1940s, and what could it have done since if millions of frequently talented people hadn’t been tragically murdered? Economists who believe that war has a growth upside rate our endless scorn. Which means economists rate our scorn.  

After which, Epstein’s pride in his superior club rates mention for his pride (and his memoirs overall) revealing the opposite of victimhood. Awful things occasionally inserted themselves in Epstein’s lucky life, but this didn’t stop him. Terrible things happened to the Jews in total, yet they’ve thrived. I bring this up as a member of the right who believes the right increasingly embraces the very victimhood that it decries in the left. Schools, the media, Democrats, liberals, professors, they’re all out to get us, or hurt us, or “ruin” this great country. The Jews went through much worse, only to once again thrive. It’s not even close. The right needs to stop whining.

Ok, we can get to the writing. And the insights. Epstein writes that “the least marriageable man is the fifty-year old bachelor who has never married.” These types are too critical. We learn that “savant idiots” are “intellectually dazzling figures who get all important things wrong.” Yes! I’ll be using that more than a lot in my writing life.

In a lunch with Robert Manning at The Atlantic, Epstein recalls that Manning had two carafes of wine without listening to anything Epstein said. Where are the Mannings of today?

There were words/phrases that Epstein wouldn’t allow into American Scholar, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa. They included “impact,” “in terms of, “as it were,” and “weasel words like ‘arguably.’” I worry I’ve used them all over the years.

Writing about Frankie Sommers, a friend from childhood, Epstein describes him as “a boy two years older than I.” Why this? Because in books and columns it’s routine nowadays to read “two years older than me.” I write older than I, and was gratified to find in Epstein evidence that I’m correct, while writers and editors increasingly are not.

Surprisingly, but probably a comment on how little editing help any writer gets anymore from publishers, on p. 227 Epstein wrote of “all the things I could with the annual interest” on a $2 million contribution to American Scholar. The contribution was ultimately refused ahead of Epstein losing his perch there, but it seems “do” was left out between could and with. 

Epstein happily doesn’t consider himself conservative or right wing, rather he’s part of the “anti-bullshit party.” Good.

Epstein retired as an instructor (not tenure track) at Northwestern in 2002, when “political correctness had not yet kicked in.” That didn’t read as true. John L’Heureux had already published the wildly funny The Handmaid of Desire about the PC movement at Stanford in the 1990s, David Lodge had written Changing Places about loony left-wingers at Berkeley in the 1960s, William F. Buckley had of course published God and Man at Yale in the 1950s, and then anecdotally, the movement was alive and well during my time at the University of Texas from 1988-1992, and during which I was shouted at for being “David Duke” after running for campus president on a platform that included ending affirmative action. About all this, I strongly feel the right has vastly overplayed its hand on political correctness and affirmative action not because I support either, but because I think they shouldn’t go to courts to fix preferential treatment, and then I think they well overstate the pervasiveness of left-wingery on campus in order to secure donor dollars. Sorry, but college life looks as it always has: largely glorious. I base this on my own experiences speaking about – yes – the glories of wealth inequality to college students whom members of the right claim are near monolithically socialist. Nah, the kids are alright. Life isn’t that bad. Particularly not life in the United States.

As Epstein’s wonderful book inches to conclusion, he writes that his disappointments in life are “too trivial to mention: that I cannot play the piano, that I’m not a superior tennis player, that I never learned ancient Greek.” These are the words of a lucky man, but much more important, a lucky man who knows it, and who doesn’t dwell on life’s inevitable difficulties. Very lucky for us is that we have Joseph Epstein and all his brilliant writings. Read them, buy the books, and buy his memoir.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, President of the Parkview Institute, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors (www.appliedfinance.com). His latest book, released on April 16, 2024 and co-authored with Jack Ryan, is Bringing Adam Smith Into the American Home: A Case Against Homeownership

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