Magazine September 9, 2019, Issue

Readers Who Have Surprised Me

(Pixabay)
In the hurly-burly of politics, we usually don’t stop to note our simple, unadorned love of the things that make this country so marvelous. That’s what we’ve asked our contributors to our latest special issue, "What We Love about America," to do.

The more a politician uses the phrase “the American people,” as in “The American people need to know . . .” or “The American people deserve better . . . ,” the more full of beans I take him or her to be. I have chosen my vegetable, beans, with some care, for the speech of such politicians is the spoken equivalent of flatulence. What do these politicians know of the American people, their immense variety, their attainments and points of view? Beans — they know beans. 

After some 80 years roaming among these same American people, I continue to be delighted, every so often blown away, by them. I am neither a bartender nor a statistical sociologist, so I have taken neither drunken confessions nor opinion samples to arrive at my conclusions. I am instead a writer, but I seem to be one of the kind that Holden Caulfield claims his brother Buddy was: a writer people like to call up after they read him. In my case, they do not call, but write me letters and of course more frequently send emails. What impresses me is the element of surprise in many of these communications. 

Four examples:   

Many years ago, when I was editing an intellectual magazine, I received a letter from a physician in Tarrytown, N.Y., informing me that, owing to reading the magazine I edited, he had decided that he could no longer consider himself an educated man unless he knew ancient Greek. “One of the things a medical education confers,” he wrote, “is a good memory, so I taught myself ancient Greek.” I neglected to write back to say that the editor of the magazine that inspired him, me, alas had no Greek whatsoever, ancient or modern.

While working on the same magazine, I would get occasional letters from a woman in Tyler, Texas, offering what she felt were grammatical improvements and syntactical adjustments to the magazine’s prose, not a few of them, I regret to report, well taken. She was — no shock here — a high-school Latin teacher.

A man from Chico, Calif., a World War II veteran, used to write to me regularly about a gallimaufry of items. He was among other things a great admirer of Willa Cather — an admiration I shared — and felt that, in her superior culture and literary refinement and grasp of the great American subject, immigration, Cather made Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald look like high-school boys.

More recently I met, in a home for the blind at which my granddaughter was working as a volunteer, a man named Matt Shanahan, who had lost his eyesight in midlife. He had not finished high school because of the Depression, and had worked in a post office most of his adult life. He claimed he was missing what he called “the ambition gene.” He spent a vast amount of time listening to books on tape. I knew I was dealing with a man who thought well beyond his résumé when, at our second meeting, Matt asked me, “Do you have any notion why Hannah Arendt wanted to sleep with a creep like Heidegger?”

From this brief sampling I hope it is plain that there are vastly more extraordinary Americans than are dreamt of in any politician’s dopey conception of the American people.

This article appears as “People Who Surprise” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Joseph Epstein — Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm, The Elusive Enchantment.

In This Issue

What We Love About America

U.S.

American Men

American men — with few exceptions — treat you like a human being, in a free, natural way, because they’ve done it from the nation’s youth.

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Most Popular

Elections

Bernie’s Huge Victory

Bernie had a massive night in Nevada, with a diverse nomination-winning-type coalition. According to the entrance poll, he won whites and Hispanics and did well among blacks. He won men and women. He won college graduates and did particularly well with non-college graduates. He won Democrats and independents. ... Read More
Elections

Bernie’s Huge Victory

Bernie had a massive night in Nevada, with a diverse nomination-winning-type coalition. According to the entrance poll, he won whites and Hispanics and did well among blacks. He won men and women. He won college graduates and did particularly well with non-college graduates. He won Democrats and independents. ... Read More
Elections

Bernie Sanders Is a Moral Monster

Bernie Sanders complains that some criticism of the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is “unfair.” The Castro government lined up political dissidents and shot them. It tortured them. It weaponized the medical profession to torture and deform its critics. Its campaign of murder was extraordinary, its ... Read More
Elections

Bernie Sanders Is a Moral Monster

Bernie Sanders complains that some criticism of the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is “unfair.” The Castro government lined up political dissidents and shot them. It tortured them. It weaponized the medical profession to torture and deform its critics. Its campaign of murder was extraordinary, its ... Read More
U.S.

Women’s Sports Should Be Women’s Sports

Transgender sports policies make a mockery of women’s competition. Just look at the state of Connecticut. At the 2018 state open for women’s track and field, two young men identifying as transgender took first and second place in the 100m race. Their participation not only deprived young women of their ... Read More
U.S.

Women’s Sports Should Be Women’s Sports

Transgender sports policies make a mockery of women’s competition. Just look at the state of Connecticut. At the 2018 state open for women’s track and field, two young men identifying as transgender took first and second place in the 100m race. Their participation not only deprived young women of their ... Read More

Escape from Wuhan

The onset of the crisis in Wuhan startled me like a jump scare in a horror movie. You’ve seen the kind I mean. The audience is led to believe that the monster, psycho killer—or what have you—pursuing the intended victim is still distant. Then whatever it is stands up from behind, leaps out in front, bursts ... Read More

Escape from Wuhan

The onset of the crisis in Wuhan startled me like a jump scare in a horror movie. You’ve seen the kind I mean. The audience is led to believe that the monster, psycho killer—or what have you—pursuing the intended victim is still distant. Then whatever it is stands up from behind, leaps out in front, bursts ... Read More