Edmund L. Epstein, Scholar Who Saved ‘Lord of the Flies,’ Dies at 80

April 9, 2012

By BRUCE WEBER

April 8, 2012

Edmund L. Epstein, a literary scholar who, as a book editor in the late 1950s, was so taken by a well-reviewed but not especially popular first novel by a largely unknown British writer that he decided to reprint it in paperback, thus enabling the extravagant American success of “Lord of the Flies” and its author, the future Nobel Prize winner William Golding, died on April 1 in Melville, on Long Island. He was 80.

The cause was complications of multiple myeloma, his daughter Dr. Lucy Hutner said.

Mr. Epstein, who taught at Queens College of the City University of New York for many years , was a Joyce scholar and the author of influential book-length studies of Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Finnegans Wake.” He was also a founder, in 1957, of the James Joyce Review, a short-lived journal that was an important antecedent of the James Joyce Quarterly, which was founded in 1963 and to which he contributed.

“Professor Epstein helped shape the field for nearly two generations across a range of essays covering all of the Joyce canon,” the Quarterly wrote in an obituary on its blog.

In 1957, Mr. Epstein became the editor of Capricorn Books, an imprint of G. P. Putnam’s Sons (now owned by the Penguin Group) aimed at the college market.

“Lord of the Flies,” the allegorical tale of well-brought-up British boys who, left to their own devices on a remote island, devolve into savagery, had been published in England in 1954. The next year, after being rejected by a number of prominent American houses, it was published in the United States by Coward-McCann (also owned by Putnam’s and later known as Coward, McCann & Geoghegan) in a hardcover edition. It sold poorly.

But Mr. Epstein was one of its select readers.

“The idea was to publish John Dewey, Santayana and other titles that could be sold as supplementary reading in colleges,” he told The New York Times in 1983, referring to Capricon’s plans, “but I thought I’d like to see whether ‘Lord of the Flies’ would catch on in courses in modern literature.”

Mr. Epstein’s instinct was a splendid one. The paperback of “Lord of the Flies” was published in August 1959, and by the time Golding visited the United States in 1961, it was hugely popular on campuses throughout the country, and he was flooded with requests for speaking engagements.

According to John Carey’s biography, “William Golding: The Man Who Wrote ‘Lord of the Flies,’ ” the Coward-McCann hardcover sold 2,383 copies.

“The 1959 paperback sold 4,300 by the end of the year, 15,000 in 1960, 75,000 in 1961,” Mr. Carey wrote, “and by some estimates half a million by the end of 1962. Several cultural commentators noted that Golding’s novel had replaced J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” as the bible of the American adolescent.”

Edmund Lloyd Epstein was born in the Bronx on Oct. 15, 1931. His parents were Jewish immigrants — his father, Alfred, a pharmacist, from Poland, his mother, Eva, a former modern dancer, from Russia. He graduated from Queens College and earned advanced degrees in English from Yale and Columbia. He briefly taught college in Buffalo before going to work as an editor.

After Capricorn, he worked for Noonday Press, an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and in 1965 left publishing for academia. In addition to Queens College, he taught at Southern Illinois University and the Graduate Center, the City University of New York.

In addition to his daughter Lucy, he is survived by his wife, the former Tegwen Jones, whom he married in 1965; another daughter, Bronwen; a son, Matthew; two brothers, Sherwood and Claude; and three grandchildren.

Golding, who died in 1993, wrote more than a dozen books after “Lord of the Flies,” including “The Spire” and “Darkness Visible,” and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983. But he never approached the wide acclaim and influence he achieved with his first novel, which was first adapted for film by Peter Brook in 1963.

Capricorn went to 95 printings of “Lord of the Flies” before the imprint was phased out and the novel was placed under the banner of Perigee Books , which has gone to at least 48 more printings. According to Putnam, more than 10 million copies are in print in a mass-market paperback format. A biographical and analytical essay that Mr. Epstein wrote for the original edition has, in subsequent years, probably reached more readers than all of his Joyce scholarship combined.

“When I reprinted it, there were six extra blank pages in the back of the book,” Mr. Epstein said in the 1983 interview. “I could have cut them out, but instead I used them to write an essay about Golding.”

Asked if he had anticipated the novel’s popularity, Mr. Epstein responded modestly.

“I thought it would sell more than Dewey and Santayana,” he said.

Originally published by The New York Times