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Recent events have called to mind Jacques Barzun’s exertions to influence his own times, and our future. A review of the latest Ken Burns documentary, The Dust Bowl, triggered a memory of America Now, a topical anthology published during the Great Depression. Jacques Barzun’s contribution to the book includes a striking example of prejudice that crystallizes the nature of racism.
But I let it go. Would Jacques want anyone to bother with a mere essay from 1938 when the previous year he had published an entire book on the hateful subject? Like Burckhardt and Gibbon, Barzun may well become celebrated for a single work, so why spend time and effort on such a dated piece?
Then a couple of weeks ago Timothy Egan, author of the National Book Award winner The Worst Hard Time, stirred up Dust Bowl history again with “In Ignorance We Trust”. Recalling Barzun’s essay once more, I pulled it off the shelf and reread it. The memorable episode of racism that I first recalled is but one small part of an exegesis that arrays his usual – extraordinary – variety of evidence.
Finally, one of many tributes to the late Senator Daniel Inouye included the war hero’s account of a San Francisco barber denying the Japanese-American a haircut, despite the empty right sleeve pinned to Inouye’s Army uniform. That shameful incident might have turned out differently if someone in that shop had read Barzun’s essay. The prospect that such situations could arise motivated Jacques to write something new for America Now, and moves me to resurrect it at last.
Barzun did not simply submit a chapter from his second full-length book, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937). The global, historical perspective of Race remains, however, as he starts fresh with conditions at home: “At the present a wave of anti-Japanese feeling is sweeping over the United States. Everywhere, in high circles and low, condemnation of the Japanese for their war on China is to be heard, and practical effect is given to it in the form of a buyers’ boycott of articles made or originating in Japan, from silk stockings to ten-cent-store cigarette boxes. The Japanese living in this country are put on the defensive and must perforce be apologetic or defiant. They must either uphold the policies of their mother-country or explain them away as the doings of a military clique with which they, the Japanese-Americans, are not in sympathy.”
Barzun then shifts to the plight of German-Americans in the U.S. during World War I to illustrate the first characteristic of race-prejudice, calling it “tribal identification.” Before the first page ends he brings in the third Axis power to provide a concrete example of the superstition’s absurdity and harm: “More recently, Italian imperialism in Abyssinia had its repercussions in Chicago and New York in the form of clashes between Italians and Negroes on the same basis of identification with the two groups warring in the Ethiopian mountains.
“It is easily seen how slight the real bond between the two pairs of opponents in such a racial situation can be. Even on the basis of color the Abyssinians and the American Negroes hardly form a homogeneous group, and on a political or economic or cultural or geographical basis, there is no discoverable similarity between the population of Harlem and that of Addis Ababa.”
Having deflated race-thinking, Barzun replaces it with constructive thought – the imagination of the real. Years before there was a Manzanar, Jacques asks his readers to consider the differences between two men walking side-by-side in Los Angeles, an issei father and nissei son (like young Dan Inouye in Hawai’i) who “are separated by a personal and cultural chasm that it would be hard to exaggerate.” Their expectations and hopes diverge like their legal status. The son’s birth on American soil allows his family “to get around the provisions of the California Alien Land Act, and thus a motive of economic rivalry is introduced into a situation already complicated on the social and cultural sides.”
Barzun examines this second characteristic of race prejudice through the oscillating treatment of Oriental immigrants, beginning with the Chinese: “When the ‘coolies’ were no longer useful and began to offer real competition to white labor they turned from ‘sober and thrifty workers of all-round ability’ to ‘moon-eyed lepers.’” Then by reversing the “racial” perspective, he furnishes the example that has remained vivid for me since the first reading:
“Economic status in America is closely allied to social position, and the distinctions, although not embedded in rigid terms or titles, are keenly felt, often with surprising alterations in the form of local race-prejudice. For example, it is generally true that the recent or unassimilated immigrant in this country is felt by the ‘older stock’ to belong to an inferior social and racial group. The ‘hunky,’ ‘Cannuck,’ ‘Mick,’ or ‘Wop’ is a lower sort of animal in comparison with the alleged ‘Anglo-Saxon.’ But observe the effect of economics upon this pattern of thought and feeling: In Fresno, the Armenian population is well established, well-to-do, and thoroughly respectable. When, therefore, during the last depression, Fresno was invaded by homeless immigrants from poverty-stricken regions of the South, these dispossessed ‘Anglo-Saxons,’ whose family trees in some cases had struck roots on this continent before the Revolution, were considered by the Armenians an undesirable alien lot, and the usual batch of contemptuous adjectives rained down upon them in spite of their great past and pedigree. Dirty, shiftless, crooked and criminal were among the milder terms applied to the new ‘race’ huddling across the railroad tracks in improvised shanties and un-American squalor.”
Barzun’s comprehensive treatment of the human race (singular) may account in part for Kenneth Clark’s 1975 remark that Barzun’s Race: A Study in Superstition (2d ed., 1965) is not one of the classics on the subject. The first African-American to earn a Columbia University Ph.D. in psychology (1940) married the first woman (and second African-American) to achieve the same distinction (1943). Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark’s long campaign to integrate American society included the studies of children’s responses to “white” and “black” dolls that influenced the unanimous Supreme Court decision to desegregate U.S. schools, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954). By 1975 the history and achievements of the Civil Rights movement dominated discussions of racism, but Barzun’s first edition of Race had as its background not only the 1930s resurgence of lynchings in America, but also the long history of pogroms in Europe that would erupt again during Kristallnacht – the year that America Now came out.
§ § §
After criticizing the treatment Barzun received in “curiously listless and uninvolved” obituaries and memorials, Mr. Mark Halpern added that “He is being prepared, it seems, for burial in footnotes and bibliographical essays as a very decent sort of chap, almost always on the side of the angels, but perhaps not in the front rank of heroic battlers for truth and freedom.” (Vocabula Review, vol. 14, no. 11, November 2012; published online 18 November 2012 [subscription required]) My use of the bibliographer’s shovel has been to dig up – rather than to bury – Barzun’s brilliance. This gentle rereader’s lamp may not shine as brightly as The Vocabula Review, but it is here for all to see.
Our champion – Mr. Halpern’s and mine – battled heroically on many fronts. Regarding the question of race, Barzun certainly was on the side of the angels, and did not wait for the dust to settle before he engaged. His intelligence mission took him to Germany in 1933–34 (with his new American citizen’s passport) as the Nazis consolidated power. He waited until after the war to thank “the librarians at Dresden, Berlin, and Frankfurt-am-Main—unknown to me by name—who facilitated, in spite of Nazism, researches of which they knew the bearing.” But Jacques did not hide in the stacks. Any fear that the survivor of German shelling during the Great War may have felt did not stop Barzun from attending a Nazi rally and witnessing Ernst Röhm’s threatening ability … that prodded Hitler to have the SA commander assassinated the following year.
Barzun was choosing his next battles even before then. Several visits to the Paris World’s Fair of 1937 gave indications of trouble ahead: “Politically, it was the first attempt of the fascist, communist, and Nazi propaganda machines to make ‘culture’ an instrument of aggressive diplomacy.” Jacques did not settle for the role of passive chronicler of events; his actions included timely production of his penetrating thoughts with Of Human Freedom (1939) and Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941). Anyone who wants a nutshell version of Barzun’s thought on racism, so as to move swiftly on to these works, would do well to read “Race-Prejudice” in America Now.
Between editing anthologies like his Pleasures of Music (1951) and The Delights of Detection (1961), Barzun also managed to produce two influential bestsellers, a volume of his critical essays, a research-and-report handbook (still in print with a sixth edition), and a little survey that’s easily overlooked: Music in American Life. His essay of 117 pages was written from January–July 1955, soon after publication of his other American panorama, God’s Country and Mine.
Rereading Music in American Life after “Berlioz and Barzun” recalled my initial expectation that the work would be insubstantial. I found instead that it is fundamental, an ear-witness account of “Music Unlimited”, as an early section title sums up the effects on daily life of ubiquitous broadcasts, canned music, and the mass production of vinyl records. His attitude remains central: “Music shares my devotion with the other arts as well as with ideas and concerns remote from art; so that my aggressive passions and my lust for rationality disperse themselves (harmlessly, I hope) over a wide territory.“
That passion for Reason shows how Barzun made his own the Enlightenment’s driving force. Yet his defense of Romanticism led some to call him a Neo-Romantic. Rather than seeing them as irrational worshipers of emotion, Jacques championed the Romantics for making ‘an intellectual point about the emotional life.’ (Please forgive the paraphrase and lack of a citation; I may add them later.) When first reading Music in American Life, the recognition of Barzun’s Modernist ways prompted this marginalia:
If Shaw’s generation got into the habit of using the inversion trick, it may be said that JB’s talent for showing many sides simultaneously belongs with the Cubists, helping the reader to move from the dogmatic single vantage where truth has a vanishing point and use the mind to hold multiple perspectives in a single pulse of thought.
There are many examples throughout his work of the long sentence or paragraph rapidly assembled from disparate elements that Jacques chose not to break down into a rat-a-tat-tat of simple declarative sentences. There are better examples, but here is the Music in American Life paragraph (p. 82) on LP records (“discs”) that reinforced my view that Barzun is altogether Classic, Romantic, and Modern:
“The moral is simple: any musical addict ought to make a point of balancing his diet. Discs sustain the musical life, but the vitamins of live music make it flourish. To vary the image, the disc is to the amateur an introducer and a reminder; to the performer it is an aid to study; to the critic, a means of comparison and judgment; and to all a source of recreation and refreshment akin to a library of plays. But its auditory and intellectual rigidities are esthetic limitations to be mentally corrected, just like the bad acoustics of a given hall, the bad fingering of a member of the string ensemble, the bad tempo of a manic conductor, the bad mood one may be in from a stomach ache. Music is never perfectly heard or rendered, which is why it has to be ‘monitored’ by the receiving mind, even and especially after it has been monitored in the studio.”
This post marks the 105th anniversary of Jacques Barzun’s birth.
Twenty years ago I had no inkling of all that I would have to be thankful for in 2012. The thought of writing to my hero was daunting. The prospect of meeting Jacques Barzun seemed impossible. I have wondered since May whether to write about that culmination. I now choose to do so as a way of giving thanks.
Prior to the concert I stood up to take photographs of the Majestic Theatre’s interior and of the great man sitting across the way. I also may have been the first to rise in a standing ovation as Jacques came forward to say a few words in lieu of the planned video tribute. When the symphony’s performance concluded, the applause faded, and the audience started to file out, I stood by my seat and turned to savor the occasion. I saw two smiling women headed my way.
Mary Jane Howe and Diana Hamner wondered who this stand-up character might be, ‘a Berlioz expert’ perhaps? I told them of my enthusiasm for Barzun and touched on a few areas of his expertise, including the life and music of Berlioz. My Barzun train of associations might have become a runaway if not for the impending reception. I listened to the charming ladies describe San Antonio’s attractions, including other handsome theaters. Our delightful chat was cut short as an usher asked us to move to the lobby where Eric Morse waited patiently.
We met and walked up to the mezzanine’s Starlight Lounge. Thanks to Leo Wong’s surprising initiative and Marguerite Barzun’s kindness, we found our names on the guest list. Just inside we were offered champagne. I sipped from the flute and scanned the room. Our benefactor, Charles Butt, stood over in the middle section greeting appreciative guests. Not far from him more people gathered around the center of attention, a smiling Jacques Barzun. It looked to be a while before we might enjoy an audience.
Remaining on the periphery, Eric and I talked about the amazing reality of our presence there, our impressions of San Antonio, and the books I carried: the first volume of Berlioz and the Romantic Century and A Stroll with William James. The focus on conversation resulted in my losing track of the author’s living presence. Then “suddenly” he was rolling near and the gentlemen pushing his wheelchair said, “There’s someone here with books for you to sign.”
The question of how to address him could be put off no longer. How to express reverence and friendship at once? “Professor Barzun … Jacques,” came out as I managed to say, “I’m your amateur bibliographer, John Adams.” I made something like a bow to lower my eyes to the level of his own. “Oh, John …” he responded with warmth and surprise as he reached out for my hand. Having known for some time of the pain writing often caused him, I clasped his hand gently and found that his hands were as large as mine.
Taking a step or two back, I turned to my compatriot, “May I introduce your newest neighbor? This is Eric Robert Morse, direct descendant of Samuel F. B. Morse of telegraph fame, a painter like his ancestor and a published author with several books to his credit.” As Eric stepped forward I added that though a newcomer to San Antonio, he had already formed a reading group, the first Jacques Barzun Book Club.
There were hundreds of questions that I would like to have asked Barzun, most arising from an intimate knowledge of his works. Somehow I skipped them all and landed on an inconsequential detail, his portrait on the “Berlioz and Barzun” program. Lionel Trilling’s photograph of Jacques wearing a summer suit had first appeared on the dust jacket for God’s Country and Mine. Showing Barzun wearing a watch on his right wrist, I had wondered whether he was left-handed. During a rereading years later it occurred to me that the image had been reversed. Of all the foolish words that have passed my lips, the most ridiculous were those that informed my hero, “You never parted your hair on the right side.”
The gracious gentleman overlooked that blunder and our short conversation continued. I noticed Eric crouch so that he too would see eye-to-eye with Barzun. Recognizing his good sense, I gave up my stooped posture and took a knee. (If I had brought my sword I might have asked Jacques to knight me.) Soon thereafter he was answering a question when his throat began to catch. A few moments later his eyes started to water. He managed to collect himself, but the discomfort may have diminished his acuity.
I mentioned something from our letters and he asked, “Have we corresponded?” I could have reminded Jacques of my occasional missives from California, New York, and Alaska, or gifts ranging from smoked wild salmon to a James Agate book of theatre criticism that was new to him. Instead, sensing another admirer standing by to greet Jacques, I simply said, “Maybe a sample of my handwriting will remind you.” I reached into my coat and pulled out a card that I had written that afternoon, thinking that if he was too tired to attend the reception I might find someone who could deliver it to him later.
Barzun opened the envelope then and there. A last small tribute dropped into his lap – a 1921 silver dollar. The grandfather for whom I am named had given it to me on the day I was born – a birthday shared with my father and, as I learned just this year, Barzun’s father, too. Jacques arrived in America the year before the coin was minted. The Liberty head design reminded me of his arrival by steamer in New York harbor, under the welcoming gaze of that other gift from France. I mentioned those connections in my note.
Whether my handwriting jogged his memory I do not know, but he asked whether we might have met before, “perhaps without the beard?” Despite his love for William James, I had noticed over the years a half dozen or so disparagements of beards in Barzun’s writing. Replying to one of my infrequent letters (sent at a longer than usual interval after a move from Kodiak to Juneau), Jacques expressed relief that I hadn’t fallen into a crevasse. My humorous answer included the adjacent photo as proof of life and explained this Alaskan’s preference for facial insulation from the cold. Jacques wrote back: “Do not labor under the misapprehension that I have any objection to beards. Yours shows excellent topiary work. My distaste is only for paucity and straggle when flaunted.”
I assured Jacques that this was our first meeting – one that I had hoped for since at least as early as my first letter to him in 1993 – and expressed my gratitude viva voce and in the note: for the chance to meet him, for permission to work in his Papers at Columbia, and for all that his works have meant to me. I picked up the unsigned books, then Eric and I stepped aside. We moved toward the back of the room where we thanked Marguerite and talked with her briefly. She asked Jack Jackson to join us, made the introductions, and soon excused herself to go check on Jacques.
Jack delighted us by describing his informal conversations with Jacques. I thank him here again for sharing those experiences and his interest in family histories. It was Jack who urged me to write of the trip to San Antonio and include the ridiculous details of my pilgrimage.
This website’s 11-month beginning, my first public attempt to broadcast Barzun’s merits, has brought unexpected pleasures. I hope that there will be more exchanges like Bill Sweetland’s freewheeling appreciation of Jacques. (Thanks, Bill, for the encouragement to reveal more of myself.) I was glad to see an instance of the tags I provide helping someone to discover what Barzun said on a particular subject, in that case the orchestral poet Sebastien Voirol. The details can be found in the post “father and son” and in the comments below “What’s next?“
Sending a “Berlioz and Barzun” program to Leo Wong was the least I could do to show my gratitude for his support. It seems that the instant a gentle rereader post appears Leo has planted a link in the Jacques Barzun Fan Club on Facebook. I imagine that he was the one who added this site to the Jacques Barzun page on Wikipedia, as well. Best of all, his occasional comment (see after “Barzun’s women“) and frequent emails supply Barzun conversation that I have missed for much of my life. Thank you very much indeed, Leo, especially for the gift of how Jacques first greeted me. I would not have been present without your intercession.
San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastien Lang-Lessing asked guest of honor Jacques Barzun whether he would like to say anything about the evening’s Berlioz selections. Barzun drew applause from musicians and audience alike by deferring to the orchestra’s imminent performance. Jacques made way for the music as he rolled from front-and-center to wheelchair space along the left aisle.
Anyone there unfamiliar with Barzun’s criticism might suppose that the response to music he advocates – even after the last bar has been played – is silence. Thanks to Michael Murray’s Jacques Barzun Reader, his answer to the question “Is Music Unspeakable?” can be heard in full (pages 323–337). Barzun begins with the elemental: “After a concert there is a natural urge to talk. Music is a strong stimulus that calls for outward release. But there is also the wish to be safe, the fear of saying the wrong thing. This awkward relation of words to music is what I hope may be made clearer by considering some neglected facts.” Jacques inoculates listeners against the “snobbish and fallacious” malady of critics and musicians who treat music as “pure” or “mathematical” and beyond the help of words.
I know Barzun much better than Berlioz, so what I have to say about the concert may sound foolish. Though I was attending the same performance as Jacques, his experience of “Berlioz and Barzun” must have been much richer. His keen musical perceptions and profound knowledge of the composer would resonate throughout the performance. The distance between our seats made a difference, too. Jacques saw the back of Concertmaster Ertan Torgul who faced the orchestra; my view from the third row right showed Mr. Torgul in profile. Barzun’s eyes and mine were below stage level so that we could not see many musicians beyond those downstage.
From the first beat of Le Carnaval romain overture I saw the truth of Barzun’s assertion, “That the response is visceral is vividly shown when we look at players and conductors in action.” Lang-Lessing’s baton gamboled along with his entire being. Torgul moved with vigor despite being constrained by the violin under his chin and confined to a chair. Between the two I could clearly see Associate Concertmaster Bonnie Terry whose spirited playing showed both through her bodily motions and the expressions flashing across her beautiful features.
Those who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink may recall his last chapter, “Listening with Your Eyes.” He relates the story of trombonist Abbie Conant’s blind audition for the Munich Philharmonic in 1980. A screen made her gender invisible to the judges and her ability won them over. Her unveiling prompted pay discrimination and later demotion to second chair. Eventually vindicated in court and in concert, Conant was a harbinger of the gender balance – through careers open to talent – evident in orchestras like today’s San Antonio Symphony. So I dismissed the lazy conjecture that Ms. Terry had been promoted for her loveliness, or denied the Concertmaster’s chair because of her sex.
Eventually I closed my eyes to her beauty, the better to attend to the entire orchestra. Before then, however, I saw something extraordinary, a look that combined so many feelings that I still struggle to describe them. Seriousness was there, as it had been since tuning her instrument. Concentration focused her eyes like lasers. If the moment had been filmed, I could pause the replay as the crucial passage approached and identify the measure about to move her eyebrows – not into a furrow or frown, but into some configuration of recognition, comprehension, an intense understanding of the composer’s meaning. Remembering her complex expression months later, I better understand Barzun’s assertion: “What is stirred up by music lies below the emotions, or at least at the core of more than one at a time.”
Barzun elaborated his distinction between visceral and emotional responses to music in his 1951 Elson Lecture at the Library of Congress, “Music into Words.” There he also explained by analogy how all true arts provide reverberation beyond their daubs of paint, stone shapes, or strings … of words. Returning to Hamlet, the tragedy that helped to save young Jacques’ life, Barzun chose passages to show how art works after preparing the ground, “… art differs from workaday communication in that it transcends the literal—not excludes or denies it, for it contains it—but goes beyond. If this is so, then another imaginary barrier between music and the other arts disappears: no art denotes or gives out information.” The reflections on Yorick’s skull that follow – one page of twenty-seven devoted to music – should not be missed by anyone who cares about Art, especially literate artists.
No wonder that the final piece by Berlioz that Jacques wanted to hear live was the “Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet” from Tristia (Opus 18). The conductor gave his 21st century listeners advance warning that sounds of gunfire would come from the music – presumably not from the audience or a drive-by shooting. Crackling like fireworks comes about two-thirds of the way through the funeral march, but I do not recall whether the selection halted there or whether the orchestra played the remaining third.
In either case, that was not the last Berlioz composition performed that night. Lang-Lessing chose as an encore the piece that Jacques asked to be excluded from the program: the “Marche Troyenne.” Barzun had adopted the music as Columbia University’s graduation processional and told the conductor that he was tired of it, just as many teachers grow weary of “Pomp and Circumstance.” I hope that this last lagniappe caused Jacques no worse indigestion than the prospect that his legacy may be boiled down to that of an “educationist.”
Barzun deserves a better fate. He has been recognized as a Great Teacher and will remain one for as long as his works continue to be read. That happy thought suggests that more of his works should be inscribed with digital ink. HarperCollins may find it too great a challenge to translate From Dawn to Decadence into e-reader formats. A Jacques Barzun Reader, however, is perfectly suited to Nook, iPad, Libre, Kobo and other devices. The Harper Perennial paperback is currently out of stock at Amazon, but we can encourage HarperCollins to digitize Barzun’s cross-fertilization of the arts by simply clicking on the “Tell the Publisher! I want to read this book on Kindle” link (right column, next to picture of e-reader).
Brief quotations of Barzun can be a disservice to reader and author alike. The lines quoted here apply well enough to the occasion, but they are hardly nutshells of either lecture or essay. I wish that I could link to complete texts of “Is Music Unspeakable?” (originally in The American Scholar, Spring 1996, pp. 193–202); to “Music into Words” (printed in The Score, December 1954; Music and Words: From Addison to Barzun, Jack Sullivan, ed., pp. 14–31) and to Critical Questions, pp. 3–29, as editor Bea Friedland also includes “The Meaning of Meaning in Music” (pp. 75–98; and in The Musical Quarterly, January 1980, pp. 1–20) where Barzun explains:
“Music—and every other art—is expressive in the same sense as a cry or a gesture. We say to the same effect a ‘facial expression’–it has no name, but it means. Music is of course far more complex than cries, faces, or gestures, but like a brilliant pantomime its consecutive intention is immediately perceived and understood. No need of mentally guessing, translating, converting its passing forms into another realm of abstract or concrete perceptions. The better word for this power is not expression but expressiveness, which—to me at least—gets rid of the imagined second term that cannot be named but would be tacked on to ‘of’ if one could name it.”
The Express-News report on the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert came close to accurately quoting the honoree. Jacques compared San Antonio Symphony benefactor Charles Butt to Horace and Virgil’s patron Maecenas, the “wealthy Roman who thought that his compatriots ought to have a more elevated pleasure than having gladiators kill each other.”
Whether an editor snipped column inches or the reporter chose to turn a deaf ear to Barzun’s next remark is impossible to say. Jacques did go on: “I was trying to think of an equivalent of gladiators killing each other and I finally hit upon it,” then he paused before delivering a punchline. He didn’t refer grimly to the UFC’s caged combatants locked in their bloody mixed martial arts. Instead, Barzun made the orchestra and audience laugh with his musical analog to a Colosseum spectacle: “rock and roll.”
Why not rap? Public Enemy’s Chuck D claims that music education budget cuts in New York City during the 1970s deprived youth of Barzun’s “more elevated pleasures.” The musical instrument vacuum was filled by hip-hop and rap. Barzun named rock, though, and the Express-News may have left that out to avoid controversy. Not Jacques. Nor will I.
Free tickets to the Majestic Theatre performance drew a varied crowd, from blue jeans to suits, and from elders to kids. Seeing children in the foyer before the concert reminded me of Jacques’ first public music experience, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. I have since recalled my own – another free concert – outdoors during the Strawberry Festival in Orange County, California, when I was around ten. A band played the opening electric guitar melody of “Get Together” by the Youngbloods and I felt reverberation for the first time. Songs on the little plastic radio at home did not do that. Popular music was all that I really knew until Barzun’s words opened my ears to Berlioz. Then it was on to Furtwängler’s Beethoven and more.
Having grown up with rock, though, I can imagine how easily others might dismiss Barzun’s joke – especially in print – as the cranky humor of an elitist curmudgeon. JB’s jabs can startle, shove aside timeworn ideas, and create an opening for the unexpected. His barbs are sometimes meant to serve that purpose, as suggested in an epigraph to his Energies of Art from John Jay Chapman: ”So long as a man is trying to tell the truth, his remarks will contain a margin which other people will regard as mystifying and irritating exaggeration. It is this very margin of controversy that does the work.”
Barzun achieves surer results when the occasion allows him to better develop his thoughts. When rock-and-roll’s golden oldies were still recent releases, Barzun delivered “A Request for the Loan of Your Ears” (1961) to an audience about to hear for the first time compositions from the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. His listeners in the McMillin Theatre included lovers of classical music and, among the students at least, some fans of rock as well. Strangers to the new creation, Jacques first invited them to take pleasure in the effort to comprehend unknown works, but
“To understand in this fashion does not mean to accept passively because someone says that the stuff is new and therefore good, that many believe in it, that it’s going to succeed anyway, so it’s best to resign oneself to the inevitable. This kind of reasoning has gone on about modern art for some thirty years and nothing has been more harmful to the arts. It is an inverted philistinism, which eliminates judgment and passion just as surely as did the older philistinism of blind opposition to whatever is new.”
Then by combining critical and historical insights with Jamesian psychology he alerted his listeners to their minds’ natural conservatism. Openness and equipoise become the way to discover richer pleasures – old and new.
Barzun’s double-action thought reveals unknown art, delivering democratic access to the best that he’s discovered. The Majestic Theatre audience – almost everyone hearing for the first time at least some of Barzun’s favorite Berlioz marches – included a cross-section of class and culture. I thought of Maya Angelou’s complementary line, “No less to Midas than the mendicant.” Then I heard the music.
After visiting Trinity’s library, I headed for the cleaner’s to pick up my suit. Though the promised delivery time had arrived, my suit had yet to come back from the dry cleaning plant.
Impatience might have gotten the better of me if I’d just stood there waiting, but I remembered a friend’s request to bring back a chili pepper braid. I asked the owner if there was a place nearby that might have one. Advised that it was a tourist item mainly available at the downtown market on weekends, he suggested trying the nearby H-E-B.
What’s the Barzun connection? H-E-B’s Broadway Central Market displayed a banner that read “Passport France”. Beret wearing staff members and customers were having fun with model-and-artist cutouts. Greeted in French as I entered the store, I exchanged kisses with the cheerful stranger. San Antonio had been primed for “Berlioz and Barzun” … and the concert was now only a couple of hours away.
Publication includes public speaking. Jacques Barzun spoke everywhere from the classrooms of Columbia to the Library of Congress, from New York’s 92nd Street Y to Aspen and Glimmerglass, on radio programs and vinyl records. Barzun’s “blessed year of sabbatical spoils”, 1943–1944, saw him listening and speaking on campuses from coast to coast before dashing off (in just five weeks) his first bestseller, Teacher in America. Never a captive of the Ivory Tower, Barzun still made time for speaking to groups of students and teachers during the ensuing decades, from Princeton to Stanford to Trinity in Texas. There on a visit to San Antonio – around the time that Jacques began writing From Dawn to Decadence – he spoke to a Trinity audience that included a brilliant young woman, Lara Moore. Like Jacques, Lara would go on to graduate first in her class.
I visited Trinity University during the afternoon before the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert. Honoring the memory of Dr. Moore, I had donated a copy of Michael Murray’s Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind to Trinity’s Elizabeth Huth Coates Library. The recently published book had been added to their Special Collections, possibly because of the memorial tribute to a distinguished alumna tipped in:
My hope was that present and future Trinity students might encounter Lara when checking out his biography. So on the day of the Barzun tribute I delivered a second copy of his biography to her collegiate alma mater for circulation. Introducing you to Lara in a similar way recalls cherished memories of a dear friend.
Like Barzun’s French ‘Race’, Dr. Moore’s dissertation was published: Restoring Order: The Ecole des Chartes and the Organization of Archives and Libraries in France, 1820–1870 (Litwin Books, 2008).
The inaugural meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club (JBBC) might not have occurred on Monday, 14 May 2012, if Mr. Eric Robert Morse had been unwilling to take a risk. The conversation described in “Classic Barzun” was diverting for a time, but the chances of engaging in much anticipated “Jacques talk” were dwindling like my beer.
Then I recalled that to make coordination possible Eric had gambled and put his cell phone number on the Internet. Now I wished that I’d captured it earlier, instead of trusting to an old-fashioned rendezvous. Still, I managed (with the help of 1Password) to get my mobile to locate his number online. Moments after making the call I shook hands with Eric who had a great table out on the patio. All along we’d been just a hundred feet from each other. His lookout had been over the other entrance to Citrus – at the top of the stairs leading up from Riverwalk. (Take note, future participants in the San Antonio chapter of the Jacques Barzun Book Club.) Thank you, Eric, for being patient and for taking the chance that made our first meeting happen.
We settled into adjacent seats, facing west and the river. The first thing I noticed on the table was Eric’s paperback copy of A Stroll with William James, my old friend. A well thumbed first edition remained in my backpack, along with the first volume of Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1969), and the bibliographic database of Barzun’s works. Eric’s posting the day before suggested the possible value of bringing my laptop: ”We will probably discuss Dr. Barzun’s works in general and lay out a plan for future readings.” I’m glad to report that we didn’t get to the planning that night.
Let the record show that Stroll was the JBBC’s first topic of conversation. We quickly moved on to other favorites, and I glowed within. Only the horizon showed signs of gloom as dark clouds piled upward. The slowly advancing thunderheads stole none of the warmth. Our talk did turn to the next night’s Berlioz concert and its curious ending with a funeral march. I mentioned to Eric my recent exchange with Peter Bloom. He had been struck by the marche funèbre closing a program meant to honor a 104-year-old man, considering it in questionable taste … unless Barzun’s strong preferences had governed the selection.
Recounting for Eric the powerful conclusion in each of Barzun’s several editions of Berlioz, I elaborated on the nutshell reply I’d sent to Professor Bloom: ”My response to the Berlioz selections was similar to yours. My bet is that Jacques did ask for the funeral march, and at the brief concert’s conclusion. There is a certain fitness to combining the personal importance to JB of Hamlet and HB’s funeral music to remind us of the horses bolting through the cemetery gates with Berlioz alone.” Would the World War I survivor make a similarly dramatic departure the next night, expiring with the musketry at the march’s conclusion? I dismissed the phantasm, deciding that Jacques would not allow himself such a breach of decorum.
Happier thoughts followed and we eventually ordered appetizers and antelope. Already the author of several published works, Eric described his first reading of Barzun, saying that he discovered something needed that had been missing. I poorly convey his meaning, and hope that he will take the first opportunity to correct and amplify what I only mention. I also look forward to seeing what effect reading JB may have on his future work. May Barzun’s influence be as salutary for Eric Morse as it was for Tony Hillerman at the outset of his crime fiction career.
Like any good book group we wandered off topic, covering our past residences in San Diego (his recent, mine ancient), his auspicious beginning in San Antonio, and when the Spurs’ playoffs run came up our shared enthusiasm for basketball. (Barzunian orthodoxy is an oxymoron, cf. baseball.) We also watched out for Eric’s friends who planned to join us after their conference broke up. And the clouds kept coming.
We frequently returned to Barzun’s latest masterwork. My recent rereading of From Dawn to Decadence had been unplanned. I was about a third of the way into The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when the almost inevitable thought occurred to compare Gibbon’s treatment with Barzun’s handling of the theme in From Dawn to Decadence. The anticipated quick comparison turned into a renewed perusal of Barzun’s most complex work. (Gibbon calmly waits for me to return as soon as I finish reading the third of Jim Lynch’s sparkling novels set around Puget Sound.) I wondered aloud to Eric whether a couple of centuries from now From Dawn to Decadence will be as accessible as The Decline and Fall is to present-day readers.
The conversation that had been both humorous and serious tapered off when Eric’s guests arrived. Introductions exchanged, his friend from northern California was hardly surprised but thoroughly delighted that Eric had started a book group during his first week as a San Antonio citizen. We talked a bit about Barzun and then shifted the conversation to their conference and lives. We felt a few sprinkles but remained outside, leaning forward under the table’s umbrella. Soon thereafter, but after several wonderful hours, the inaugural meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club had to be called on account of rain.
Eric and I resumed play the next night, following the concert and reception, as we ate a less exotic but still delicious late supper at a riverside restaurant’s bar. That’s when Eric brought up the question of which Barzun works to read next, asking me to send recommendations along as soon as I had the time. I whipped out my pocket notebook instead. I laughed when he said it was like getting assignments done in class in order to avoid homework. True enough, though the context of our discussion provided the right preparation for the impromptu list I made.
I began with The Energies of Art, explaining how the commercial success of Teacher in America, praise for the first edition of Berlioz, and a recent bestseller also favored by critics, God’s Country and Mine, had created a market for Barzun’s work as scholar-critic in the collection of essays. The earliest among them, “Truth and Poetry in Thomas Hardy” from The Southern Review (Summer 1940), recast for Energies as “Hardy’s One World”, shows Barzun as much more than a journeyman building up to From Dawn to Decadence. The cultural historian lived in literature (as well as the musical and fine arts), and then turned his experience into cultural criticism, re-presenting art for life’s sake.
It’s hard to imagine a Jacques Barzun Book Club as a batch of Baker Street Irregulars or a Wolfe Pack, confined to a single canon. When his admirers find themselves back at the beginning with The French “Race”, and no more of his books to read, there need not be an end. The glory of Barzun is that his thought coruscates with others’ works that merit attention. Those bring me back to Barzun’s brilliance, as his explorations discover what is most valuable – as well as disposable – in each of them. A Barzun essay coupled with the work discussed would afford an excellent opportunity for rewarding conversation.
Anyone who cares to test the assertion might try reading Barzun and Stendhal “On Love”, and then savor “William James and the Clue to Art”. Until the acidic paper turns to dust, the best version of Energies will remain the Vintage edition of 1962, despite a pair of reversed lines in the sharp new preface. The good Greenwood Press printed five of Barzun’s books on paper made to last, but the 1975 reprint of the original Energies of Art, despite library binding, cannot preserve what it does not include. Here is a brief sample from Barzun’s four-page credo in the Vintage paperback:
“I believe that criticism is a serious undertaking, but I do not believe that it is a technical process requiring rubber gloves and manufactured apparatus. Works of art are complex, but that does not seem to me a valid excuse for making criticism complicated and leaving no room for the reader to enjoy art through fugitive, inexplicit response. One would have thought that modern pride in subtlety would have prevented the manhandling of that fragile flower, Response, just as the devotion to the Work of Art should have kept criticism from being called ‘creative.’ But both abuses exist and indeed prevail.” (page ix)
I look forward to listening more than talking if FaceTime or Skype makes it possible for me to attend the next meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club on July 8th.