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One of the Wake‘s strongest critics, Edmund Epstein, passed away over the weekend while in hospice care. A member of the founding generation of American Joyce critics, he published dozens of essays on the author and his work as well as two widely influential studies: The Ordeal of Stephen Dedalus: The Conflict of the Generations in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Southern Illinois UP, 1971) and A Guide through Finnegans Wake (UP of Florida, 2009). His first essay on Joyce appeared in the summer 1957 issue of the now largely forgotten James Joyce Review, itself an important precursor to JJQ. That essay, “Cruxes in Ulysses: Notes toward an Edition and Annotation” helped set the stage for the creation of what we now think of as the Joyce industry and its importance has been recently affirmed by its inclusion in Foundational Essays in James Joyce Studies, edited by Michael Gillespie and just out in Florida’s Joyce series. From that moment in 1957 forward, Professor Epstein helped shape the field for nearly two generations across a range of essays covering all of the Joyce canon. He was a sharp and prolific reviewer as well and many articles that passed through JJQ’s offices were strengthened by his generous commentary.
Professor Epstein’s work extended beyond Joyce and included books on linguistics as well as African literature. But it was perhaps his final book for which I think he will be best and longest remembered. His Guide through Finnegans Wake is the product of a lifetime spent studying and teaching this most difficult and expansive of texts. It offers Professor Epstein’s distinctive and definitive reading of Joyce’s final work, whose opening pages Sebastian Knowles calls “mandatory reading for all who embark” on a reading of the Wake. Like few others, he manages to untangle the book’s complexity in order to uncover a story of pressing urgency that washes in and around a time profoundly out of joint. I have used this book since its publication in my own Joyce courses, in large part so I can offer my students some sense of what it might be like to study the Wake with one of its master teachers. This guide is a significant legacy left to all of us and looking through it again I am at once grateful for what we have been given and saddened at this loss.
A black box remembering Professor Epstein will appear in the next issue of JJQ alongside a memorial essay composed by one of his students, Jeff Drouin. In addition, the comments section of this post will be opened so that anyone who wishes to offer their own memories may do so. If you knew Professor Epstein or benefitted from his work, please feel free to add something.
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