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

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Culture

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Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More
Culture

Why Progressives Wage War on History

Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More

Patriotism Is Becoming ‘White Supremacy’

Never before has a speech extolling America’s virtues and the marvels or the nation’s heroes played to such poor — and completely dishonest — reviews. At Mount Rushmore on Friday night, President Trump gave a speech that was very tough on the woke Left, while largely celebrating America — its ... Read More

Patriotism Is Becoming ‘White Supremacy’

Never before has a speech extolling America’s virtues and the marvels or the nation’s heroes played to such poor — and completely dishonest — reviews. At Mount Rushmore on Friday night, President Trump gave a speech that was very tough on the woke Left, while largely celebrating America — its ... Read More
U.S.

Bad News about the Virus

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U.S.

Bad News about the Virus

On the menu today: an important update about indications that the coronavirus is now more contagious than it used to be, with far-reaching ramifications for how we fight this pandemic; a point on the recent complaints about the Paycheck Protection Program; and a new book for everyone closely following the debate ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Washington vs. Violent Crime

In New York City, 49 people were shot over the holiday weekend. The death count, so far, is eight. With 101 shooting victims in the last week, shootings are up 300 percent over the same period last year; for the full month of June, they reached a level not seen since 1996. Even before this latest bloodbath, ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Washington vs. Violent Crime

In New York City, 49 people were shot over the holiday weekend. The death count, so far, is eight. With 101 shooting victims in the last week, shootings are up 300 percent over the same period last year; for the full month of June, they reached a level not seen since 1996. Even before this latest bloodbath, ... Read More