gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the category “History”

America now

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.  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.

First_Lt_Daniel_Inouye

1st Lt. Inouye

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:

“Anglo-Saxon” refugees in California

“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.

In memoriam LJM

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).

Living Books

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.

Eric Morse (on the left) launched the Jacques Barzun Book Club. John Adams joined him that first night and in this photo following the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert.

American Panorama

Short critical introductions to books recommended in American Panorama, Eric Larrabee, ed., New York: New York University Press, 1957.  Kessinger Publishing Company [reprint], 2010.

This volume’s subtitle summarizes the Carnegie Foundation project:  “Essays by Fifteen American Critics on 350 Books Past and Present Which Portray the U.S.A. in Its Many Aspects”.  Please click on either link above to view more details of the project, Barzun’s contributions to it, and recommendations of his own books included in the set.

Barzun’s women

Jacques Barzun’s historical insight – original with him – conveys one of our time’s predicaments: “The one thing that unifies men in a given age is not their individual philosophies but the dominant problem that these philosophies are designed to solve.”°  The revelation may slip by unnoticed if the distracting question arises, What about women?

Readers of From Dawn to Decadence discovered more women than they might have expected in a cultural history that sweeps over five centuries.  That may explain why the Women’s Independent Forum asked to interview Barzun.  His sketches of historical figures are tantalizing, whether of women, men or adolescents.  Their firm lines reveal character, and populate a thematic narrative more ambitious than the mere chronicle of an era.

Cynics reflexively disagree, and may suspect Barzun of placating female readers by salting his bestseller with scores of women.  That would miss his point entirely.  The Woman Question is one of those that unifies our age, with “answers” ranging, for example, in a single decade, from Gloria Steinem’s to Phyllis Schlafly’s.  Barzun discerns it as part of a larger pattern and traces the theme of EMANCIPATION back through the ages, tracking the progress of women as well as the common man (of all genders).  He anticipates possible objections to the historical usage of “man” and addresses them early in From Dawn to Decadence (pp. 82–84); a brief reprise also appears in the interview noted above.

Barzun’s historical account necessarily records misogyny, but the man does justice to women – virtuous and villainous as revealed by events.  The same holds true for his criticism, and not just recently.  Over six decades ago, Barzun was Harper’s chief book critic.  His essay-review in the January 1948 issue focuses on current fiction: “Knee-Deep in Novels, or Death by Mis-Adventure.”  He sees through the stories and spots the authors’ silhouettes as intellectual, moralist, or sociologist, and resumes his search for “The Novel as Life Force Embodied.”  Recusing himself from a full review of The Middle of the Journey by his friend and colleague Lionel Trilling, Barzun finds just two new novels worth remembering.  The first is A Quiet Neighborhood by Anne Goodwin Winslow.

Who?  Readers then were as unlikely to know her name as we are now.  Two collections of her poetry had been published in the 1920s.  Almost two decades later she resurfaced with a new volume of poetry and another of short stories, but A Quiet Neighborhood was her first novel.  Barzun performs the critic’s role of midwife by presenting the qualities of her work to the public, and goes on to scold her publisher.  The book’s jacket copy transforms her setting into a cliché – “serene and gracious Southern life” – which Barzun calls, “language hardly fit to describe a cookbook, quite apart from its critical innaccuracy.  How can a work of art find its proper readers if it is misrepresented on its very wrappings by those most interested in distributing it?”

His admiration for Anne Goodwin Winslow’s work was not a passing fancy.  She published two more novels:  It Was Like This (1949) and The Springs (1950).  When Barzun served as editor of the third issue of Perspectives (Spring 1953), he paid her the compliment of introducing her short story “Mr. Rochester’s Wife” to European readers (along with a Wallace Stevens poem, Eric Bentley’s criticism of Shakespeare theater, and W.H. Auden’s review of Short Novels of Colette).  Robert Lowell also mentions in his April 29, 1957 letter to Elizabeth Bishop (Words in Air, p. 202) that Barzun planned to nominate Anne Goodwin Winslow for membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Jacques Barzun’s “Editor’s Commentary” in Perspectives points to many reasons for the contemporary confusion regarding western culture’s direction, including that “the artist has to die before we learn that he was born.”  Anne Goodwin Winslow did not go unnoticed, and when she died in 1959 Barzun remembered her with “On the Death of an American Artist” (The Mid-Century, No. 8, January 1960, pp. 22–23).

Delivering the President’s address on the 75th anniversary of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (then convened with the American Academy of Arts and Letters, now merged), Jacques Barzun joked about the “the criminal chapter of our history” during Prohibition, preparing his audience for the quick transition to their concerns in 1973:

One of our present preoccupations, for example, is to make sure that enough women are elected.  I mean, of course, to represent fairly the artistic scene.  Our past record on this score is deplorable, but it betokens socially induced weakness of will, rather than a positive vice.

Recalling that Henry Adams had argued in 1909 that “Edith Wharton and a dozen more” deserved recognition ahead of inductee Julia Ward Howe, Barzun points to the heart of the matter:  “There is a great deal in our history, despite its mere 75 years, that would illustrate the permanent difficulties, peculiarities, and benefits inherent in the relation of art to society.”  Barzun’s sparkling address at the banquet also drew laughter as he cultivated the Academy’s future, just as he had done in the past.  His nominee in 1955 was poet Phyllis McGinley.

Barzun’s attentions were not limited to those two American women.  English author Dorothy L. Sayers gets higher praise, but that will have to wait for another occasion.  Before publishing this post, however, I should satisfy the curiosity of those who may wonder about his other recommendation in Harper’s.  The young talent Barzun heralded was Saul Bellow, whose next book would be The Adventures of Augie March.

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° Romanticism and the Modern Ego (Little, Brown, 1943, p. 21); Classic, Romantic, and Modern (Anchor, 2nd ed., revised, 1961, p. 14), (Univ. of Chicago Phoenix reprint, 1975, p. 14).

My thanks to Mr. Leo Wong for turning up the archived link to the Autumn 2000 Women’s Independent Forum interview of JB.

Ping-Pong with Mortimer Adler

Michael Murray’s splendid new biography of Jacques Barzun recounts an unexpected instance of frivolity in a Columbia University psychology course taught by young Mortimer Adler.  Although working on a Ph.D. in psychology, the inexperienced instructor (a philosopher by predilection) had trouble filling class hours with appropriate content.  Teenaged Jacques one day proposed that the class step down the hall to finish the hour by playing ping-pong.  Adler acquiesced, and the lark turned into a frequent amusement.

Their rallies became more purposeful during the decades ahead.  By the time Adler moved on to the University of Chicago in 1930, Barzun was himself a Columbia graduate student and instructor.  Ten years later, Adler published How to Read a Book and Barzun drew attention to it with a critique in the Saturday Review, “Read, Do Not Run” (March 9, 1940, p. 6).  While praising Adler’s effort to make the riches of literature more accessible to the public – which turned the manual into a bestseller – Barzun finds the author inconsistent:

Curiously enough, what Dr. Adler rejects as a possibility for the living, namely, “two or more sides to a question,” he accepts for the great  dead of the European tradition, since he asks us to read with sympathy a grand list of great books from Homer to William James—a list that expounds at least half a dozen irreconcilable views of the world.

Adler’s capitalized “Great Books” would stir up trouble later, but his original goal was to include more people in what Jacques’ former teacher Mark Van Doren called the “great conversation.”  Barzun was a colleague in 1940, and in his sixth year of team teaching with Lionel Trilling a Columbia honors seminar with the more accurate, less contentious, even modest title of “Colloquium on Important Books.”

Three years later Adler conceived the idea of compiling Great Books of the Western World.  The 54-book set debuted in 1952 and also merited a Barzun review, this time in The Atlantic Monthly (December 1952, pp. 79–80, 82, 84).  He gives highest praise to the unifying Syntopicon, the first two volumes that cross-reference the rest of the collection, calling that pair “miraculous” and “a stupendous achievement.”  The Aristotelian Adler’s classification system permits readers to quickly find what the assembled authors have to say on a particular topic.  Those come from 102 “Great Ideas” (also parsed into thousands of subdivisions) which bring the authors to grips with each other.  The contents were another matter.

Barzun concludes – after presenting varied, ample and humorous evidence – that “the great books here gathered with so much love and care and public spirit betray a high-minded axe-grinding in the direction of intellectualism.”  The future author of The House of Intellect did indeed write those words, but only after regretting that the first edition of Great Books missed the opportunity to “unite a great variety of intellectual interests by choosing from the recent times not only Freud but Shaw.”  Barzun considers the collection unbalanced in a rationalistic direction:  “Shouldn’t we have had … Balzac and Henry James—instead of Hippocrates on Hemorrhoids and Archimedes on Spheroids?”

Barzun recalls Pascal’s distinction between “the spirit of geometry and the esprit de finesse” before offering these closing words on the first edition of Great Books:  “The search for geometrical propositions is admirable, but it would be disastrous if the unchecked desire for a canon of truth were to give us neither Montaigne’s humanist, ‘ondoyant and divers,’ nor Emerson’s American Scholar or ‘man thinking,’ but some sort of joyless, dehydrated western man in canonicals.”

Lesser men might have become sworn enemies after such a review.  Yet Adler would call Barzun a lifelong friend, with good reason.  Instead of abandoning Great Books of the Western World, Barzun worked to improve the second set (1990).  Editor-in-Chief Mortimer Adler later recognized the new edition’s Board of Editors – “especially Jacques Barzun” – who “made many recommendations of authors and works to be included or eliminated.”  Which works those were might be quickly determined by someone with access to the University of Chicago’s Mortimer J. Adler Papers (try boxes 26, 46, and 128).  But why let the mere likelihood of those letters’ existence spoil the fun of speculation?

Barzun almost certainly championed Balzac’s Cousin Bette, most likely for its portrayal of an artist’s life – and the conditions of making great art – woven into the story of unlovely Bette’s loss of him followed by vengeful machinations against her extended family.  Barzun’s pairing of the great French novelist with Henry James in the 1952 review hints that he would campaign later for William’s younger brother.  And I feel sure that Barzun pushed for Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World.  Barzun’s reply to a National Book Award Foundation query about books that have influenced his work names Whitehead’s Science with four others, including Berlioz’s Memoirs and Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

Certainty, that elusive prize, does attach to at least one Barzun service to the second edition of Great Books of the Western World.  His 1952 review criticizes the first edition’s “conspicuous absence of any concern with the fine arts.  Except for misleading references among the ancients, one would not know that the west had seen the tremendous development of music and initiated the art of discussing it.”  Volume 34 now offers an imaginative work from the encyclopedic mind of Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, as translated by Jacques Barzun.  The title character’s uncle, Jean-Phillipe Rameau, was a leading Baroque composer whose treatment of harmony broke new ground.  The uproar it produced at first was forgotten as his innovations were gradually adopted and became part of the musical tradition.  Diderot’s characters take on music, genius, convention, criticism and many other topics in a satirical conversation of less than fifty pages – a joy to discover in the more easily read single column layout.

Barzun and Adler’s back-and-forth lasted for over half a century.  Not until the United States sent Forrest Gump to compete in China would table tennis have such import as when Jacques and Mort played Great Books ping-pong.

points of entry

I wonder how college students first encounter Jacques Barzun these days, if they do at all.  Some may hear of the Grand Old Man through the summation of his life’s work as a cultural historian, From Dawn to Decadence.  Whether they accompany Gibbon’s peer through 500 years and 800 pages of promising starts, lost opportunities, and great achievements in the West is anyone’s guess, or a professor’s prerogative.  Others might catch a glimpse of Barzun by way of a striking quotation, but without following his thread.  Snippets are seldom enough to convey the richness of the original work and of his interwoven thought.

I suspect that luck counts in such matters as well.  When I was an undergraduate, a student’s early acquaintance with Jacques Barzun was most likely to come from an essay in an assigned anthology or a manual of instruction – unlikely though not impossible sources of enthusiasm.  I may be most fortunate in never having had Barzun assigned.  And the book that first inspired my youthful enthusiasm was a later edition of a work begun in his own youth.  Classic, Romantic, and Modern spoke directly to me then and is still a great place to start with Barzun.  Originally the Lowell Lectures of 1941, the subsequent work retains the lively sense of a man thinking on his feet.

I would be glad to hear of actual first experiences of reading Barzun, among students of any age, recalling that 104-year old Jacques still calls himself a student of cultural history.

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