gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the category “Literature”

musical expression

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.

Bonnie Terry
Associate Concertmaster
San Antonio Symphony

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.”

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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.

hiatus

It has been nice to see how many of you have returned to check on the gentle rereader during the three weeks since my last post.  A fresh bit of Barzun has always seemed worth the wait to me, and I hope the page added today will make that true for you, too:

“Critical Appreciations”The Columbia Varsity, volume VIII [8], number 1 (October 1926), page 25.

For those curious about my hiatus, I’m happy to report that an unexpected promotion and a consulting deadline have precluded dedicating more time to Barzuniana.  Plus it’s springtime in Alaska, and we have to take advantage of the sun before the summer rains start.

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.

Total Experience

Jacques Barzun’s third contribution to the May 1926 (Commencement) issue of The Columbia Varsity rounds out the critical views of “Obiter Dicta” and the fiction of “Fantastique”:  “A Total Experience” may be a straightforward review of Richard Kane Looks at Life: A Philosophy for Youth (Houghton Mifflin, 1926) by Irwin Edman, but it held real importance for Jacques.

Irwin Edman

Remembering from “Irrelevant Maturity” that JB was not shy about tangling with Columbia faculty, his praise for Professor Edman’s fiction shouldn’t be suspected as sycophancy.  Barzun describes Edman as “an admirable teacher” in a 1993 letter, recalling his course in modern philosophy that introduced Jacques to the thought of William James.

The significance of Edman’s Richard Kane and Barzun quotations from the review appear on the page linked below:

“A Total Experience”, review of Richard Kane Looks at Life: A Philosophy for Youth by Irwin Edman, The Columbia Varsity, volume 7, number 2 (May 1926), pages 15,25.

[This post adds categories and tags for this bibliography item since those can’t be assigned to pages.]

passing remarks

This post announces the addition of another item to this online Barzun bibliography and provides the means to categorize and tag the main page for

Obiter Dicta: A Less Tragic View of the Artistic Puddle and of Some Fish That Swim Therein”, The Columbia Varsity, volume 7, number 2 (May 1926), pages 11–12.

With renewed thanks to Ms. Jocelyn Wilk of the Columbia University Archives.

paradoxes, questions & answers

Publication by giving speeches is another way that Jacques Barzun’s influence spread.  There were many occasions when what began as a lecture soon found it’s way into print.  A dinner at the Institute for the Humanities at Salado (Texas) in the fall of 1988 supplies an example.  Barzun’s address, “The Paradoxes of Creativity,” went from spoken words to printed with the American Scholar‘s Summer 1989 issue (pp. 337–351).  Some of the original atmosphere is recovered when audience questions and Barzun’s answers follow his talk as published in Creativity: Paradoxes & Reflections (Chiron, 1991).

The Institute’s dinner/lecture series had a more inviting title: “Creativity, Alive and Well.”  Barzun’s challenge to complacency is reflected by some responses from the audience during the Q&A session: “Must one be a genius in order to create?”; “I was concerned about your comment that this was an end of an era of creators.”; and “Is it not true that the pedestrian and prosaic individuals end up historically defining who is a genius and who is not?”  Barzun’s replies make this publication of the “The Paradoxes of Creativity” preferable to those versions where the text stands alone, though Jacques has better company in Best American Essays 1990.

The examples given to amplify or clarify his points after the talk, like much of Barzun’s thought, can jar listeners or readers into reconsidering reputations and “accepted ideas”:  “I read Shelley, but I haven’t a single friend who thinks that Shelley was a good poet.  The whole Academy of Arts and Letters would sign a document saying he was not a good poet.  My good friend W. H. Auden abominated him.  He said there was no poet he detested more than Shelley, unless it was Racine.  Those are the real opinions, but, of course, in the schools and textbooks and conventional talk, Racine and Shelley are great names.  Somehow that doesn’t seem to me good enough.  I think the only real admiration consists of direct enjoyment.  Look at the way Mahler has come out of the ground after an unconscionable time.  I continue to dislike Mahler, but I am glad that he is out in the open to be shot at, as well as enjoyed.”  Dashing expectations in this way may be an impediment to Barzun’s popularity.  Critical conclusions aside, his ability to articulate his views provides me with direct enjoyment.  

Anyone who ponders “The Paradoxes of Creativity” (in any version) will find Barzun’s familiar – but still wondrous – gift for divining intended meanings.  He reviews the history of “creation” and discerns four layers of value in contemporary usage of “creativity.”  An amateur botanist’s hobby and the shortstop play of Ozzie Smith provide illustrations of attitudes that prompt the broader usage.  The consequences of loosely applying the word are significant:  “It has not only diluted the meaning of creative, but it has also glutted the market with innumerable objects and performances arbitrarily called art, thereby making it even more arduous for true creation to find a public.  Still, more generally, creative foolery has been distorting, denaturing, destroying the fund of culture amassed since the Renaissance.”  

Barzun had already come to the conclusion that he would pronounce a dozen years later in From Dawn to Decadence:

The impulse and the clever deeds [putting a mustache on Mona Lisa] are part of an irresistible historical sweep.  Some of us might prefer to live in a time of construction, which has a different kind of excitement.  Let no one repine, however.  Rebuilding is bound to come, because true creative power is a phoenix, and the forces of destruction are clearing the space for its new flight, none can tell when or where.  Meantime, if we are to recognize the bird when it appears, let us not forget that creation means making something new and making it out of little or nothing.

desktop restored

desktop restored

Hoping the snow remains on the other side of the window.

Valdez has had a bit of snow this winter, as you can see out my window. Believe it or not, I’ve shoveled three feet or more off the top. I hope that what remains on the roof now has room to land without invading the study and burying computers.

Living in Alaska is a lot safer than driving freeways, turnpikes and city streets, but certain dangers are more spectacular. Hiking in bear country, kayaking in chilly waters, and, most recently, driving roads also used by moose are all worth the risk, but also remind me of the Barzun projects that I don’t want to leave unfinished.

There’s nothing especially noteworthy about today’s post; it is simply the first that records a Barzun item scanned: “The Colossus Laid Out” (American Scholar, vol. 53, no. 4, Autumn 1984, pages 546, 548–549).  It’s fitting for me to begin here, however, as Barzun’s review is of Dan H. Laurence’s monumental two-volume bibliography of Bernard Shaw’s works.

I hope that the tags I’ve attached to posts like this one will help Internet search engine users to find subjects that interest them, whether Barzun, Shaw, Dan Laurence, or Marie Belloc Lowndes.  (Finding lasting value in the work of Hillaire Belloc’s sister, Barzun differs with the editor he praises in just about every other way.)  I’ve also added “Translation” to this site’s Categories to distinguish those instances when Barzun offers translation criticism – as he does in “Colossus” – rather than being the translator himself.  When a passage pops out at me, like the one that follows, I’ll quote it:

The fresh details in the Bibliography and the reminder of old ones demonstrate again that the best way to be truly civilized and full of caritas as Shaw was is to have a fair and calm opinion of oneself and to vent one’s disapprovals fiercely, but in the tone and manner of candid conversation.  [p. 458]

Barzun, as usual, has more and better things to say in this review-essay.  It is not the source, however, of the fitting quotation I had in mind when deciding to begin with “Colossus”: “Bibliographers are the unsung heroes of the intellectual life.”  That opening line from Barzun’s preface to A Dictionary of Parisian Music Publishers, 1700–1950 by Cecil Hopkinson (Da Capo Press, 1979) has reinvigorated me when this labor has been most tedious.   I began making a Barzun bibliography because of memory lapses like that one of attribution.  Rereading Barzun is refreshing in many ways.

father and son

Last year an unsuspected bit of Barzuniana flickered into view.  Fairly often in the past it has taken the self-interest of used booksellers to reveal that a piece by Jacques Barzun has been anthologized.  Their willingness to list the contents of a book improves their prospects for a sale, and affords me an opportunity to discover an editor’s reasons for choosing a particular Barzun work.  One of the most satisfying examples came from the introduction to Barzun’s “The Romantic Ethos” (a 30-page slice from Berlioz and the Romantic Century) given by editors Norman F. Cantor and Michael S. Werthman in The Making of the Modern World, 1815–1914.

The latest find came under similar circumstances.  Another used bookseller advertised a title from the Orpheus series of Henri Martin Barzun that listed an essay by his son Jacques.  Since there was no mention of the piece in Virginia Xanthos Faggi’s selected bibliography (From Parnassus, 1976), I asked the seller for confirmation.  The affirmative reply included the title and a promising length of 10 pages.  The contents proved to be even more substantial, with 11 double column pages needed for a three part critical survey of modern poetics.

Henri Barzun’s 34th volume of Orpheus is dedicated “To ANNA ROSA and JACQUES” – his wife and son.  Choric Education: A Record of Labors and Achievements, 1920–1945, was published the same year as his son’s first bestseller, Teacher in America (Little, Brown, 1945).  Jacques Barzun was vested as a full professor that year, too, so omission of his “Transition or Creation? An Essay on Modern Esthetics” from the 1976 bibliography presented a puzzle.  The title alone sounds significant.

The contents reflect Jacques’ panoramic vision and familiar concern with synthesis.  Part I describes “Contemporary Chaos,” finding parallels in other periods of turmoil and launches the question, “Is there, at the present moment, a constructive force strong enough to create order out of chaos?”  Dissatisfied with the scouting of other critics, Jacques searches for visionaries among young English and American poets and closes with expatriate Ezra Pound’s disclosure of a French innovation.

Part II, “Problem and Solution,” resumes with quotations from Pound’s 1913 announcement in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse of a new form which he thinks may be “the true medium for democratic expression, the fitting method of synthesis.”  The innovator Pound spoke of was Henri Martin Barzun, whose creation of “simultaneity” (also called orchestral or polyphonic poetry) would be curtailed by the Great War’s cataclysm.

Part III, “Men and Works,” sees Jacques reviewing early performances of simultanist poetry by French pioneers and American practitioners without losing his critical balance, or opening himself to accusations of gratuitous nepotism.  Reversing the usual order, Jacques concludes his essay with “the founder,” his father.  That arrangement of parts falls beautifully into place – with the puzzle of bibliographic omission solved – by the attribution that follows:

Reprinted from The Columbia Varsity
Part I—February, 1927
Part II—April, 1927
Part III—June, 1927

 

Henri Martin Barzun sketched in the Columbia Varsity

Henri Martin Barzun sketched in the Columbia Varsity

Nineteen-year-old Jacques Barzun, Varsity editor, had honored his father as Columbia University’s June 1st commencement arrived.  Henri Barzun honored his son eighteen years later by seeking permission to reprint the undergraduate essay that elucidates his creation.  Full professor Jacques acquiesced in 1945.  Three decades later he chose not to include it with the only two Varsity essays in his selected bibliography:  “Textbooks and Tediousness” and “Irrelevant Maturity.”

Henri Martin Barzun, 1942

Henri Martin Barzun profile sketch by Clayton Spicer appears in Orpheus XXXIV, Choric Education: A Record of Labors and Achievements, 1920–1945, New Rochelle, NY: French Forum Publications, 1945.

Jacques Barzun drawn by Polly Thayer 1945

Jacques Barzun, drawing by Polly Thayer from dust jacket of Teacher in America, 1945

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.

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