gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Critical Appreciations

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

Jacques Barzun gave notice to four new literary biographies in the “English Men of Letters” series with this review.  One of five contributions to his first issue as Editor-in-Chief of The Columbia Varsity, JB opens by highlighting the lingual rather than national nature of the series:

“Very properly so, two of the four new ‘English Men of Letters’ are American:  Herman Melville and Walt Whitman; what is truly paradoxical, though in a way quite comprehensible, is that the two English writers, George Meredith and Swinburne, receive a much better treatment, a far more perspicacious critique, than do their transatlantic colleagues.”

The quality of the appraisers, rather than the quality of the artists, seems to account for the difference.  J. B. Priestley evaluates Meredith and Harold Nicolson examines Swinburne, while John Freeman dilutes Whitman and John Bailey luffs before Melville.  Barzun puts it better, of course, calling Priestley’s study of Meredith “a small masterpiece of critical biography” because it places the critical element before the biographical, “especially in the case of Meredith about whose early life there still hangs a self-protective smokescreen.”

The next sentence contains an example of young Jacques resorting to the chameleon adjective that he would later decry:  “At a time when romanticized biographies of spectacular rather than intrinsically significant figures are rife, it is singularly refreshing to read Mr. Priestley’s lucid and balanced estimate of ‘the prose Browning’, the most interesting of Victorians, since he was one only by contemporaneity.”  

Passing over JB’s engaging assessments of Nicolson on Swinburne and Bailey on Whitman, his criticism of John Freeman’s “handling” of Melville reveals an attitude that would bear fruit later in Barzun’s career:  “It is quite true that Herman Melville is not a very attractive personality, and that his life was tumultuous without romance, gloomy without grandeur.  Yet those very difficulties should make the critic’s task the more brilliant.”  

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