|Born||January 9, 1937|
|Occupation||Essayist, short-story writer, editor, teacher|
|Alma mater||University of Chicago|
|Genre||Essay, short story, literary criticism|
|Notable awards||National Humanities Medal|
Epstein was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1937. He graduated from Senn High School and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Chicago and served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960. From 1972 to 2002, he was a lecturer in English and Writing at Northwestern University and is an Emeritus Lecturer of English there.
From 1974 to 1998 he served as editor of The American Scholar and wrote for it under the pseudonym Aristides. He edited The Best American Essays (1993), the Norton Book of Personal Essays (1997), and Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature (2007). His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Commentary, Harper's, The New Criterion, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and First Things. His short stories were included in The Best American Short Stories 2007 and The Best American Short Stories 2009. In 2003, he was awarded a National Humanities Medal by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Epstein's removal as editor of The American Scholar in 1998 (following a 1996 vote of the Phi Beta Kappa senate) was controversial. Epstein later said that he was fired "for being insufficiently correct politically". Some within Phi Beta Kappa attributed the senate's decision to a desire to attract a younger readership for the journal.
In September 1970, Harper's Magazine published an article by Epstein called "Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity" that was criticized for its perceived homophobia. Epstein wrote that he considered homosexuality "a curse, in a literal sense" and that his sons could do nothing to make him sadder than "if any of them were to become homosexual." Gay activists characterized the essay as portraying every gay man the author met, or fantasized about meeting, as predatory, sex-obsessed, and a threat to civilization. In the essay, he says that, if possible, "I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth", a statement that was interpreted by gay writer and editor Merle Miller as a call to genocide. A sit-in took place at Harper's by members of the Gay Activists Alliance.
In 2015 Epstein wrote an article for The Washington Examiner in which he mentioned the Harper's article from 1970. He wrote, "I am pleased the tolerance for homosexuality has widened in America and elsewhere, that in some respects my own aesthetic sensibility favors much homosexual artistic production... My only hope now is that, on my gravestone, the words Noted Homophobe aren't carved."
William F. Buckley Jr., in his review of Snobbery: The American Version, called Epstein "perhaps the wittiest writer (working in his genre) alive, the funniest since Randall Jarrell." A writer for The Forward called him "perhaps the smartest American alive who also writes well."
Epstein invented the word "virtucrat" and first used it in an article for The New York Times Magazine. He defined a virtucrat as "any man or woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain." In his 2016 essay collection Wind Sprints, he defines it as a person "whose politics lend them the fine sense of elation that only false virtue makes possible."