gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the category “Women”

Eutopias for Euphoria

A week ago Dr. Anthony Fauci renewed a suggestion that our custom of handshakes should end. Twenty years ago Jacques Barzun wrote: “an age that has made war on smoking and given up the use of the common towel and the common cup should prohibit shaking hands.”

Barzun’s healthful warning comes early in From Dawn to Decadence (p. 127), his turn-of-the-millennium history of the West’s last five centuries. Some may wonder how 800 pages peppered with such cultural criticism could become a bestseller. I hope so.

Classic Barzun can overturn conventional thought. He titles the chapter that calls for an end to handshaking, “The Eutopians”. Why would an acknowledged master of English usage do that? “The title of this chapter will cause the open-eyed reader to think: ‘a misprint,’ or worse: ‘a misspelling.’ It is neither. The slight shock is intended to fix in the memory a point of interpretation that has a cultural bearing and is moreover a point of literary criticism.”

Barzun takes Sir Thomas More’s Greek prefix in U-topia meaning “no place” and substitutes a better Greek prefix Eu-topia “to mean the good place.” Noting the drift of language, Barzun says, “The adjective utopian has acquired the further meaning of ‘unworkable’; but that implication has not kept writers since More from designing happy societies.” Conventions can be improved upon, even in orthography.

Among the delights of From Dawn to Decadence are the Cross Sections, chapters with perspectives viewed from a particular place and time. “The View from Venice Around 1650” discovers the city’s politics, trade, diplomacy, and innovative maritime law. The broader view follows: “As the Venetians who lived around 1650 could see for themselves or heard from visitors or their own ambassadors, the world outside was full of novelties other than westward explorations for trade.”

Barzun studs his Cross Sections with literary, mathematical, scientific and musical gems. “It was the love and nurture of opera in Venice that made it a genre of endless possibilities.” Daily living is subject to review, too. “The sole touch of refinement in dining was the customary washing of hands before and after the meal.” Twenty years ago that sentence drew mild amusement. Now ears prick up.

“That washing of the hands at meal times was the one recurrent act of hygiene in the whole of life. The body was washed at birth, before marriage, and after death. The century that laid down the fundamentals of science is the one that got rid of public baths and of the very idea of regular bathing. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance even small towns had bathhouses.” How the fear of disease led to the decline of bathing – without stopping the plague – is among the historical curiosities that make Barzun’s narrative so fascinating.

Hand washing now is more common than ever before … and becoming tiresome. Reading From Dawn to Decadence can strengthen the resolve to continue. Plagues return. Viruses mutate. We count on innovators to fight new diseases.

Barzun goes back further than men of science like Jenner and Pasteur to include a daring woman: “Early in the 1700s Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was carrying on a crusade that did not let Londoners forget their health: she had the paradoxical idea that inserting a bit of matter taken from a smallpox patient under the skin of a healthy person would fend off the disease. Inoculation (later, vaccination when cows were used for the purpose) won over a few daring citizens and physicians; they proved her case and George I had his grandchildren inoculated.”

This novel coronavirus that keeps us at home presents an opportunity to do more than read plague novels or binge-watch television. Time-travel through Barzun’s Cross Sections in Madrid (circa 1540), Venice (c. 1650), London (c. 1715), Weimar (c. 1790), Paris (c. 1830), Chicago (c. 1895) and finally arrive in New York … without fear of infection.

A word of warning, though: Barzun’s thought can be “like a nasty germ in a healthy organism” and you may “come down with the disease of seeing things differently.” First infected as a teenager, I managed to live on and risked shaking his hand.

I wish that I could link you just as easily to e-reader versions of From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. There is none. Barzun’s innovations gave book typesetters trouble enough. Some 400 quotations set in the margins would need to float freely as e-readers alter text size. On the other hand, his “additional help to seeing wholes” would be perfectly suited to e-reading’s internal links. The excerpt from his “Author’s Note” in the best edition (paperback) will give a better idea of what Barzun offers those seeking refuge … and (spoiler alert) renascence.

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).

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.

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.

Post Navigation