gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the category “Literature”

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.

_______________________________________________________

° 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.

Post Navigation