Joseph Epstein (born January 9, 1937 in Chicago) is an essayist, short story writer, and editor, and from 1974 to 1998 the editor of the Phi Beta Kappa Society's The American Scholar magazine. He was also a lecturer at Northwestern University from 1974 to 2002. He is a Contributing Editor at The Weekly Standard and a long-time contributor of essays and short stories to The New Criterion and Commentary. In 2003, he was awarded a National Humanities Medal by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In 1970, Epstein wrote an article for Harper's Magazine called "The Struggle for Sexual Identity," that was widely criticized for its perceived homophobia, although Harper's editor Midge Decter defended it as an "elegant and thoughtful account". Among other things, Epstein wrote, "if I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth, because I consider it a curse, in a literal sense." He also said nothing his sons could do would make him more unhappy than if they became homosexual, "because then I would know that they were condemned to the niggerdom of the earth." The response of gay writers and readers to Epstein's piece, including a "sit-in" at Harper's by members of the Gay Activists Alliance, has been identified as a significant turning point in the gay rights movement of the early 1970s.
During his many years as editor of The American Scholar, Epstein was known for his well-regarded essays, signed "Aristides", which led off each issue. Epstein's removal as editor in 1998 was controversial. Epstein later said that he was fired "for being insufficiently correct politically".
Epstein's body of work reveals his fascination with common everyday situations, amusing trends and small pleasures that he brings to his reader's attention. He also specializes in essays that shed light on the musings and ideas of famous and forgotten authors and writes short stories that prominently feature the city of Chicago and the characters that have populated his 70 years as an observer of the city.
William F. Buckley, Jr., in his review of Epstein's 2002 essay collection, 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."