Service of Book Reviews: Is it Fair to Select a Reviewer with an Ax to Grind?

October 26th, 2017

Categories: Book Reviews, Books, Fair and Square


Could Bernie Sanders write a fair review of a book about Donald Trump or President George H. W. Bush, known to dislike broccoli, a balanced opinion of a cookbook about that vegetable? I read Joseph Epstein’s review of Richard Aldous’s new book “Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian,” in The Wall Street Journal and learned more about Epstein’s dislikes—Harvard, the Kennedys and Schlesinger’s career choices—than about the book.

He started by sharing his resentment of the importance of Harvard in its heyday as a stepping stone to a successful career no matter how ineffectual a person turned out to be. He gave as an example a friend with a Harvard sheepskin who went higher and higher in job after job, and who “improved none of these institutions in any way I could determine, which did not stop his relentless progress in the world.” Next he criticized the University today for “having committed intellectual hara-kiri through multiculturalism, political correctness and the general surrender to victimology.”

Why Harvard? The university impacted the first half of Schlesinger’s life. Epstein wrote: “Richard Aldous frequently notes the services that a Harvard connection afforded Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.” His father, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., “was on the Harvard history faculty and, along with being an historian of originality, was a clever academic politician.” He then shared a long list of how Jr. benefited in Cambridge, subsequently landing an interesting job during WWII thanks to connections. Epstein acknowledged Junior’s many talents during this period. Schlesinger, Jr. returned to Harvard after the war but subsequently made a frightful career choice, according to Epstein, who was clear in his disdain for the Kennedy family.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr Photo:

According to Epstein, “Few young men could have seemed more promising than the younger Schlesinger, until he met a Waterloo named the Kennedys. Once that fatal encounter occurred, Schlesinger went from boundlessly promising brilliant historian—with three volumes of an anticipated five of his never-finished Franklin Delano Roosevelt biography already completed—to a man variously called ‘a servant,’ ‘a stooge,’ a ‘poodle’ and ‘a hagiographer.’”

“During World War II, with its rationing and shortages of gasoline, a popular poster asked, ‘Is This Trip Necessary?’ The same question might be asked of this biography. Is its subject worthy of the full-dress biographical effort Mr. Aldous, a professor of history at Bard College, gives him? No one would claim great-man status for Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.”

Epstein described how ineffectual Schlesinger, Jr. was in influencing President Kennedy: “In taking his White House job, Schlesinger saw it as his duty to steer Kennedy onto a liberal track and keep him there. His success at the task, we learn from Mr. Aldous, was slightly less than minimal.”


Epstein disliked the award winning book about President Kennedy, “A Thousand Days,” for his pandering. As for “Robert Kennedy and His Times,” wrote Epstein: “the jig, you might say, was up. Reviewers called it ‘a 916 page promotional pamphlet of exculpation and eulogy.’ …Even Mr. Aldous, who strains to be fair to Schlesinger, reviews his various coverups of Bobby Kennedy’s more egregious behavior and concludes that ‘it is difficult for the reader not to wince.’”

Epstein gave the author credit for keeping his political views out of the book, [which is more than I can say for the reviewer]. And he complimented Aldous for describing the “inner conflicts of presidential politics.”

There is one political commentator on Cable who asks questions of his panelists and doesn’t give them a chance to answer because he then bellows his opinions and talks over them. I felt this review was like that. It reminds me of a restaurant review I read eons ago in which a perfectly good restaurant was trashed by a sainted reviewer because a couple next to her table argued loudly throughout dinner. She interspersed their uncivil conversation in her copy and blamed the owner for not kicking them out and gave the place a bad mark because her neighbors spoiled the meal.

Do you think that a person with an ax to grind should be chosen to write a review even if, like Epstein, he’s a crackerjack writer with sharp wit? Might Epstein be irritated that Schlesinger became the darling of café society and the publishing world as a result of his political connections made after he sold out and dropped the life of academia and a promising career writing serious history?


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8 Responses to “Service of Book Reviews: Is it Fair to Select a Reviewer with an Ax to Grind?”

  1. ASK Said:

    On the other hand, would you want to read a review that was slavishly devoted to the book and its author? I don’t think Mr. Epstein is alone in his opinion. But,I think book reviews, like movie reviews, are always subject to the individual reviewer’s or critic’s taste. And sometimes, controversial opinions or reviews, spur sales…

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    When dealing with non fiction the reviewer should have some familiarity with the subject to determine if facts are ridiculously wrong for example or to ferret out a political agenda so strong as to twist facts, which Mr. Epstein notes the author of this book doesn’t do.

    But his disdain for Harvard–everyone knows that a sheepskin from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown etc. often has benefits and did for sure in Schlesinger’s day–distorts his ability to think clearly about the book. I feel sorry for the author who felt that Schlesinger’s proximity to history made him a worthy subject for a review.

    If the purpose of his extreme opinions was to get me to read the whole review, Epstein succeeded. But the book got lost in the distractions and I doubt people will read it as a result which will hurt its author, Richard Aldous.

  3. ASK Said:

    I wonder where Mr. Epstein went to college…

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Excerpts from Wikipedia:

    He graduated from Senn High School and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.[2] 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.

    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.”

  5. Plotinus Said:

    What is the purpose of a newspaper book review? Yes, It may be to inform its readers about newly published books, but, more importantly, it is to catch their eye and keep them coming back to buy more newspapers.

    I think this review succeeded admirably because it sure caught your eye enough to persuade you to write this post. You will be back.

    For many of the reasons which have led to the decline in newspaper circulations over the past few years, these days, I do not read them as avidly as I once did, but I do scan them occasionally. However, as someone who, briefly, in the early 1960s, drafted prose that President Kennedy actually read, and was more recently slightly acquainted with Mr. and Mrs. Schlesinger as a neighbor, this new biography’s reviews did catch my eye, not just here, but also in the NY Times. (There, the piece was considerably less embellished and scathing, but also discouraging.)

    To the point, I thought that this one, as flawed and opinionated as it was, did contain sufficient considered information – confirmed by the Times review — to enable me to make a considered judgment not to bother to read the book.

    Even more to the point, the WSJ review entertained me, and I, too, will be back as a reader.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Let me guess: You went to Yale or Princeton.

    Joking aside, the review wasn’t a yawn, that’s for sure! I felt badly for the author who didn’t have a chance in the hands of Mr. Epstein.

    Yet Epstein is such a good writer I should look out for his upcoming work which the NY Times identified: “The Ideal of Culture and Other Essays” and “Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.”

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    If GHW Bush & Bernie Sanders were fair, their reviews would be interesting, and possibly hilarious. Not liking something or someone doesn’t necessarily mean having an axe to grind.

    Remember Clive Barnes? He wrote the wittiest, and often the cruelest reviews, bringing tears of laughter to millions! Dollars to donuts he didn’t hate anyone — just having a grand old time!

  8. jmbyington Said:


    Fun for some readers I suppose, though I never thought pratfalls were funny while plenty of others think they are hilarious. When I think of what goes in to writing a book and what it takes out of the author—or all those involved with a Broadway show—-it doesn’t strike me as funny when someone knocks a piece of work just to be clever or express opinions about the subject that are beside the point.

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