The Magazine

Don't Call Me Ishmael

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The magazine Edge, on its tenth anniversary, recently asked a number of scientists and thinkers what they found in the world or in their particular lines of interest to be optimistic about. I'm pleased to say that I was not asked. I am of course not a scientist, but I might, just possibly, have passed for a thinker. A certain portentousness, sententiousness, general pomposity goes with being a thinker. Nobody has ever called me a thinker, and I'd like to keep it that way.

I have on a few occasions been called a National Treasure, which I much resented. You never want to be known as a National Treasure. Walter Cronkite is a National Treasure, so is Studs Terkel. Russell Baker may be a National Treasure. Poor Bill Moyers seems to have been born a National Treasure. The actress Helen Hayes was a National Treasure. A National Treasure is someone you can count on to say predictably uninteresting things while giving off the blurry aura of wisdom.

I don't think I've ever been called a humorist, which is fine by me. A humorist, poor fellow, is under the pressure of being relentlessly, and therefore drearily, funny. Much better to be sometimes witty, or even faintly amusing, than to be a humorist. The late Art Buchwald was a humorist, which perhaps explains why I never found him in the least funny. Andy Rooney ditto. No one has ever called me a humorist, and I am grateful.

I'm afraid that I've been called Professor thousands of times. True, I taught at a university for thirty years, but at least I did so without any advanced degrees. Besides, professors don't even look like professors anymore, and I look nothing like what they nowadays do look like. They wear backpacks and Nike gymshoes and baseball caps turned backwards. I prefer to think of a professor as the man who plays the piano in a bordello. The reason I never liked being called Professor is that it is synonymous with academic, a word that over the past forty years has become synonymous with ridiculous.

Because of my past university connection, I've also often been called Doctor, which causes me to giggle, at least inwardly. Sometimes I'll say that I have no doctorate, other times I just let people "doctor" me. A time or two when people have called me Doctor Epstein on the phone, I have told them to read two chapters of Henry James and get right into bed, instructing them that I'd be right over.

I have also been called a "man of letters." This once seemed a great honorific, but today there is something musty about the term, something that suggests less an endangered than a vanished species. I don't believe I have ever been called America's "last man of letters"; Edmund Wilson was always called that, and how it must have galled (if not bored the pajamas off) him to have heard it so often.

An Intellectual is another thing I've been called on various occasions, though never, I'm pleased to say, a Public Intellectual, a perfectly empty phrase. Intellectual is another of those words that has gone from approbative to pejorative in recent decades. An intellectual is someone who lives on, off, and through ideas, and used to be unconnected with institutions. Now an intellectual is someone who offers his opinions on talk shows and writes op-ed pieces; hence the adjective "public." Intellectuals have come to be known for not having a genuine stake in things, for being usually wrong in politics, for being distanced from reality, for being without responsibility. Not a good thing to be called, an intellectual.

In the good-bad old days of Time magazine, under the then famous Timestyle, where concision was important, a person was usually designated by a single word, thus: socialist Thomas, philosopher Dewey, editor Luce. Had I been born twenty or so years earlier, I might have appeared in Time as "essayist Epstein."

The reason I am uncomfortable about being identified as thinker, national treasure, humorist, professor, doctor, intellectual, or essayist is that none of them feels to me a good fit. I'm not a renaissance man either, and certainly no polymath; I'm not sure I even qualify as a unimath.

I prefer to think of myself as just plain Bill, the guy in the torch song, who's not the type at all. "Only my tailor fits me correctly," Samuel Johnson is supposed to have said when people wished to label him as this or that. Given Johnson's reputation as a notably sloppy dresser, it may well have been that even his tailor got him wrong. I, on the other hand, don't even have a tailor.