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.