gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the tag “Bill Sweetland”

giving thanks

Twenty years ago I had no inkling of all that I would have to be thankful for in 2012. The thought of writing to my hero was daunting.  The prospect of meeting Jacques Barzun seemed impossible.  I have wondered since May whether to write about that culmination.  I now choose to do so as a way of giving thanks.

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Prior to the concert I stood up to take photographs of the Majestic Theatre’s interior and of the great man sitting across the way.  I also may have been the first to rise in a standing ovation as Jacques came forward to say a few words in lieu of the planned video tribute.  When the symphony’s performance concluded, the applause faded, and the audience started to file out, I stood by my seat and turned to savor the occasion.  I saw two smiling women headed my way.

Mary Jane Howe and Diana Hamner wondered who this stand-up character might be, ‘a Berlioz expert’ perhaps?  I told them of my enthusiasm for Barzun and touched on a few areas of his expertise, including the life and music of Berlioz.  My Barzun train of associations might have become a runaway if not for the impending reception. I listened to the charming ladies describe San Antonio’s attractions, including other handsome theaters.  Our delightful chat was cut short as an usher asked us to move to the lobby where Eric Morse waited patiently.

We met and walked up to the mezzanine’s Starlight Lounge.  Thanks to Leo Wong’s surprising initiative and Marguerite Barzun’s kindness, we found our names on the guest list.  Just inside we were offered champagne.  I sipped from the flute and scanned the room.  Our benefactor, Charles Butt, stood over in the middle section greeting appreciative guests.  Not far from him more people gathered around the center of attention, a smiling Jacques Barzun.  It looked to be a while before we might enjoy an audience.

Remaining on the periphery, Eric and I talked about the amazing reality of our presence there, our impressions of San Antonio, and the books I carried:  the first volume of Berlioz and the Romantic Century and A Stroll with William James.  The focus on conversation resulted in my losing track of the author’s living presence. Then “suddenly” he was rolling near and the gentlemen pushing his wheelchair said, “There’s someone here with books for you to sign.”

The question of how to address him could be put off no longer.  How to express reverence and friendship at once? “Professor Barzun … Jacques,” came out as I managed to say, “I’m your amateur bibliographer, John Adams.”  I made something like a bow to lower my eyes to the level of his own. “Oh, John …” he responded with warmth and surprise as he reached out for my hand.  Having known for some time of the pain writing often caused him, I clasped his hand gently and found that his hands were as large as mine.

Taking a step or two back, I turned to my compatriot, “May I introduce your newest neighbor?  This is Eric Robert Morse, direct descendant of Samuel F. B. Morse of telegraph fame, a painter like his ancestor and a published author with several books to his credit.”  As Eric stepped forward I added that though a newcomer to San Antonio, he had already formed a reading group, the first Jacques Barzun Book Club.

There were hundreds of questions that I would like to have asked Barzun, most arising from an intimate knowledge of his works.  Somehow I skipped them all and landed on an inconsequential detail, his portrait on the “Berlioz and Barzun” program.  Lionel Trilling’s photograph of Jacques wearing a summer suit had first appeared on the dust jacket for God’s Country and Mine.  Showing Barzun wearing a watch on his right wrist, I had wondered whether he was left-handed.  During a rereading years later it occurred to me that the image had been reversed.  Of all the foolish words that have passed my lips, the most ridiculous were those that informed my hero, “You never parted your hair on the right side.”

The gracious gentleman overlooked that blunder and our short conversation continued.  I noticed Eric crouch so that he too would see eye-to-eye with Barzun.  Recognizing his good sense, I gave up my stooped posture and took a knee.  (If I had brought my sword I might have asked Jacques to knight me.)  Soon thereafter he was answering a question when his throat began to catch.  A few moments later his eyes started to water.  He managed to collect himself, but the discomfort may have diminished his acuity.

I mentioned something from our letters and he asked, “Have we corresponded?”  I could have reminded Jacques of my occasional missives from California, New York, and Alaska, or gifts ranging from smoked wild salmon to a James Agate book of theatre criticism that was new to him.  Instead, sensing another admirer standing by to greet Jacques, I simply said, “Maybe a sample of my handwriting will remind you.” I reached into my coat and pulled out a card that I had written that afternoon, thinking that if he was too tired to attend the reception I might find someone who could deliver it to him later.

Barzun opened the envelope then and there.  A last small tribute dropped into his lap – a 1921 silver dollar.  The grandfather for whom I am named had given it to me on the day I was born – a birthday shared with my father and, as I learned just this year, Barzun’s father, too.  Jacques arrived in America the year before the coin was minted.  The Liberty head design reminded me of his arrival by steamer in New York harbor, under the welcoming gaze of that other gift from France.  I mentioned those connections in my note.

Whether my handwriting jogged his memory I do not know, but he asked whether we might have met before, “perhaps without the beard?”  Despite his love for William James, I had noticed over the years a half dozen or so disparagements of beards in Barzun’s writing.  Replying to one of my infrequent letters (sent at a longer than usual interval after a move from Kodiak to Juneau), Jacques expressed relief that I hadn’t fallen into a crevasse.  My humorous answer included the adjacent photo as proof of life and explained this Alaskan’s preference for facial insulation from the cold.  Jacques wrote back: “Do not labor under the misapprehension that I have any objection to beards.  Yours shows excellent topiary work.  My distaste is only for paucity and straggle when flaunted.”

I assured Jacques that this was our first meeting – one that I had hoped for since at least as early as my first letter to him in 1993 – and expressed my gratitude viva voce and in the note:  for the chance to meet him, for permission to work in his Papers at Columbia, and for all that his works have meant to me.  I picked up the unsigned books, then Eric and I stepped aside.  We moved toward the back of the room where we thanked Marguerite and talked with her briefly.  She asked Jack Jackson to join us, made the introductions, and soon excused herself to go check on Jacques.

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Jack delighted us by describing his informal conversations with Jacques.  I thank him here again for sharing those experiences and his interest in family histories.  It was Jack who urged me to write of the trip to San Antonio and include the ridiculous details of my pilgrimage.

This website’s 11-month beginning, my first public attempt to broadcast Barzun’s merits, has brought unexpected pleasures.  I hope that there will be more exchanges like Bill Sweetland’s freewheeling appreciation of Jacques.  (Thanks, Bill, for the encouragement to reveal more of myself.)  I was glad to see an instance of the tags I provide helping someone to discover what Barzun said on a particular subject, in that case the orchestral poet Sebastien Voirol.  The details can be found in the post “father and son” and in the comments below “What’s next?

Sending a “Berlioz and Barzun” program  to Leo Wong was the least I could do to show my gratitude for his support.  It seems that the instant a gentle rereader post appears Leo has planted a link in the Jacques Barzun Fan Club on Facebook.  I imagine that he was the one who added this site to the Jacques Barzun page on Wikipedia, as well.  Best of all, his occasional comment (see after “Barzun’s women“) and frequent emails supply Barzun conversation that I have missed for much of my life.  Thank you very much indeed, Leo, especially for the gift of how Jacques first greeted me.  I would not have been present without your intercession.

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Henri Barzun

Jacques Barzun

John at Columbia, 1980
On liberty from Navy Officer Candidate School, with a haircut Jacques would approve.

John at Columbia, 2004, hirsute.
First visit to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

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Pilgrimage

I open this post with the first person singular in order to satisfy a pair of requests.  First, Mr. Bill Sweetland of Chicago urged Barzun’s gentle rereader to reveal a bit more about himself.  Then a new friend insisted that I make the “ridiculous travel itinerary” for my pilgrimage to San Antonio part of the story.  He enters the tale following the San Antonio Symphony concert “Berlioz and Barzun” (commissioned by Mr. Charles Butt) in a forthcoming post.

Well, three thousand miles is not such a long way to go when the planes, train, and cars lead to Jacques Barzun.  Millions of visitors to Mecca, Jerusalem, Lumbini and other sacred places journey farther.  Still, the desire to see a legend while he still lives was strong enough to bring me down from the Great Land to little Texas.

The experienced Alaska traveler builds in buffers whenever an event must not be missed.  A concert on May 15th meant planning an arrival in San Antonio two days ahead.  Fortunately, Alaska Airlines flies into Austin, but only from Anchorage with at least one stop and a plane change, usually in Seattle.  And I would still need to get from my home at the end of the Trans Alaska Pipeline in Valdez to Alaska’s largest city, population around 150,000.

Valdez is home to about 4,000 people and gets more snow than any other sea-level town in the U.S.  We even had a smattering the week before the concert.  Fog is the main enemy for fliers during the summer months, but spring brings the most sunshine of any season in this part of the state.  Nevertheless, I booked a commuter flight more than 8 hours in advance of the red-eye to Seattle, just in case clouds descended on the Valdez airport.  Then I’d still have time to make the gorgeous six-hour drive through Keystone Canyon, Thompson Pass, and past the Matanuska Glacier on the way to Anchorage.

There was rain from low clouds the morning of my scheduled departure on an eight-seater Beech.  The weather reduced the number of pilots willing to risk participation in the annual Valdez Fly-In that same Saturday.  The usual carnival atmosphere prevailed, however, and I arrived early enough before my departure to wander through the booths and enjoy meeting my new Valdez neighbors emerging from winter hibernation.

But first I made a pest of myself at the counter, telling Bob about the reason for my trip and how important it was that I be on that flight.  Then I walked out onto the tarmac to wait for the plane to arrive from Anchorage.  I greeted the pilot a few minutes after he’d rolled to a stop, discharged his passengers, and got out to stretch his legs.  He saw that I was eager to get aboard, promised that an announcement would be made in the terminal when it was time to do so, and headed for the restroom.

So I went back to watching the bush pilots compete for honors in the shortest take-off category (a vital skill for remote Alaska airstrips and beach landings).  Suddenly a helicopter sprang into the air, lifting off in reverse!  Heads snapped left and right as folks exclaimed to their companions, “Did you see that?!”

It would have been great to remain outside to watch longer, but I was afraid I’d miss the boarding announcement.  The small terminal was crowded as non-passengers visited the booths inside and residents caught up with each other.  The counters were packed, and I stayed close to the doors.

Then I saw John, whose office is just down the hall from mine, and he described the short-landing judging that he’d been asked to do.  When he asked where I was going, I pulled out my copy of A Stroll with William James and told him about my favorite author and the trip to San Antonio.  We also talked about the Fly-In and shared our amazement at the helicopter’s backwards take-off.

I stepped back to the doors to check on my flight, saw a few people standing around 25 meters from the plane, but since they weren’t boarding the Beech, I returned to my conversation with John.  Already he was talking with someone else, a snow bird who spends her winters in Hawaii and summers in Valdez.  The introductions included the two Johns offering surnames, and we learned that her name was Leigh Coates.  She also offered her card, and our eyes popped when we saw that her company was Vertical Solutions.  She was the helicopter pilot who had just taken off backwards.  Leigh was a distraction, but I wouldn’t have missed an announcement that my flight to Anchorage was boarding.

Chief Pilot Leigh Coates above the Columbia Glacier

Chief Pilot Leigh Coates above the Columbia Glacier

Still, I wondered what was holding things up.  So I walked back to the glass doors and looked out … and saw my plane rolling out to the runway without me!  I dashed to the air carrier’s back door, hollered that the plane had left me behind and called, “What happened to the announcement?”  Maybe what came next occurs in commercial aviation elsewhere, but I thought: ‘Only in Alaska.’  Instead of blaming the passenger, he quickly radioed the plane and then told me that the pilot had agreed to taxi back and pick me up.

Bob stepped onto the boarding ladder and took the blame – “My bad” – saving me from any sneers.  I buckled up, added my apologies, and was met only by smiles and assurances that no connections would be missed.

And so my pilgrimage began.  A nap in the Anchorage airport preceded the red-eye.  Nothing was stolen while I nodded off.  The hop to Seattle went smoothly and I made the connection to the Austin flight with time to spare.

My taxi fare to the Austin Amtrak station was double what the train ticket to San Antonio cost.  Instead of renting a car in Austin, I decided to ride the Texas Star in part because of JB’s love for trains.  The opening line from God’s Country and Mine conveys as much: “The way to see America is from a lower berth about two in the morning.”

I enjoyed the legroom and footrests in coach while rolling through Hill Country, but remembered JB’s criticisms in “Trains and the Mind of Man” (Holiday, February 1960) and added one of my own when I learned that the only sustenance – besides scenery – to be had on a regular run starting from Chicago was junk food: candy bars, chips, and sodas.  Alert the First Lady!

At least the train was making good time.  The conductor announced that we could arrive at our destination as much as an hour ahead of schedule.  Even pausing to let a freight train use the track didn’t put us behind schedule.  We reached the outskirts of San Antonio before dark, and slowly rolled through town.  Then, with less than three miles remaining to reach the station, we came to a full stop.  An eighteen-wheeler truck was disabled on the tracks ahead.  The announced wait of half an hour to remove the truck turned into an hour and then an hour-and-a-half as a mechanical engineer was needed to inspect the tracks at the scene.  I could have walked to my hotel from where we were stopped, but regulations forbade that.

We arrived at last, and I was plenty early for the Tuesday concert … and the inaugural meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club on Monday night.

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