gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the tag “Jacques Barzun”

Classic Barzun

Some memories remain bright despite the passage of time. My trip to San Antonio for the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert is as vivid today as it was while living it. So the passage of a few weeks till I could find this time to preserve parts of the experience with words matters very little.

South Texas temperatures in the low 80s felt mild to residents, but caliente to anyone acclimated to coastal Alaska over the last dozen years. Remembering the summer heat of my childhood and adding a short-sleeved shirt to my long-sleeved wardrobe eased the abrupt transition. Just as fall weather on the Beaufort Sea coast is imprinted on my last trip to Barrow, climate clings to my spring experience of San Antonio.

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Making both weekend flights as far as Seattle, I expected the rest of the connections would be easy and Monday in San Antonio to be free. While waiting in the SEATAC terminal for the Austin flight, I took advantage of the free WiFi to post a reply to Eric Robert Morse’s 27 April proposal of a Jacques Barzun Book Club. In essence I said, ‘How about an inaugural meeting tomorrow night in San Antonio?’

Eric’s affirmative answer came in just twenty minutes, but I’d already shut down my devices. By the time I landed in Austin and boarded Amtrak, he’d come up with a great location perched above the city’s Riverwalk: the Citrus bar and restaurant in the Hotel Valencia. Just thirteen minutes after I saw Eric’s post about the venue and answered “Perfecto”, Leo Wong posted a freighted question: “You’ll tell the great man about this at the Berlioz and Barzun concert?” By that time, however, I’d left the Facebook site and was climbing into a taxi. So I didn’t see Leo’s question until the next day.

I expected no such opportunity to speak with Barzun, as I’d written to JB’s friend and fellow Berlioz authority Peter Bloom: “I doubt that I’ll get the chance to speak with Jacques. I imagine that many family members and close friends will attend and it would be inconsiderate for me to impose upon the grand old man. Simply attending the concert will spend much of his available energy, I suppose. It will have to be enough to hear Berlioz with Barzun, and lay eyes upon Jacques if I’m lucky.” Instead, the prospect of enjoying face-to-face conversation about Barzun was my sojourn’s delightful lagniappe.

I awoke Monday morning, sipped some coffee, and turned on the computer, wondering how to reply to Leo’s Facebook query. First I opened email and discovered something stronger than caffeine. A brief note from Leo contained this potent sentence: “Mrs. Barzun wants you to say hello to them and to attend the little party afterwards.” What a wonderful shock! My heart raced, believe it or not, like a teenager whose crush has just agreed to a date.

That Monday held other surprises. Whether walking to Rivercenter or dropping off a suit at the cleaner’s, I felt a deep contentment. Rather than euphoria I enjoyed a continuous feeling of rightness about it all: the improbable trip, the chance to “talk Jacques” that evening, and the opportunity to meet the Barzuns the following night. Almost twenty years earlier, in my first letter to Professor Barzun, I confessed a desire to shake his hand so I could say that I had once touched greatness. Since then, and before then, it has been a common experience to encounter blank looks when mentioning my favorite author. Any discussion that followed could only be rudimentary. Here, however, I was in the right place, at the right time, and among the right people for real conversation. I found myself looking forward to the inaugural meeting of the Barzun Book Club every bit as much as the audience with Jacques the next night.

The stroll from my hotel to the Valencia was delightful. The sun that still would be high in an Alaskan sky just five weeks from the summer solstice was dipping toward the Texas horizon. I entered from East Houston Street, climbed a flight of stairs, and glanced into the bar and restaurant for anyone resembling the working author of Mr. Morse’s Facebook avatar. Just one party of four sat in the dining room and the hostess did not see his name among the reservations. So I repaired to the bar for a pint of ice water poured by a genial bartender. Seeing the frequent glances I cast over my shoulder toward the hostess station, he agreed to help with the lookout. When asked the natural question about the reason for my travel I told him about the symphony’s “Berlioz and Barzun” concert. Still in his early thirties, he hadn’t heard of the author whose last bestseller made headlines a dozen years ago.

An older hotel guest took her seat a couple of stools down. She greeted the barkeep by name and chatted with him for a minute while I cooked up an analogy. A waitress still in her twenties had stepped up to the bar’s server station just to my left. As the bartender filled her order I asked who she thought was today’s handsomest actor. You can tell that I’m not making this up because she named Jason Bateman and Johnny Depp. I asked whether she had seen any of Paul Newman’s movies. She had not, but the bartender remembered the Oscar winning actor from “The Color of Money” (with Tom Cruise). The lady to my right recalled a younger Fast Eddie Felson in “The Hustler” (1961) and other films. Her smile and gleaming eyes were the best recommendation imaginable for a classic movie hunk. Reputations fade when audiences change, as Barzun often points out, but can be restored with the kind of appreciative critical attention he gave to Berlioz.


Looking again for Eric Morse without success, I sat back down at the bar and ordered a Shiner Bock. My next shot would be with a smartphone.

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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.

The Guest of Honor

Majestic Theatre – view from the balcony

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Berlioz & Barzun – Majestic marquee

hiatus

It has been nice to see how many of you have returned to check on the gentle rereader during the three weeks since my last post.  A fresh bit of Barzun has always seemed worth the wait to me, and I hope the page added today will make that true for you, too:

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

For those curious about my hiatus, I’m happy to report that an unexpected promotion and a consulting deadline have precluded dedicating more time to Barzuniana.  Plus it’s springtime in Alaska, and we have to take advantage of the sun before the summer rains start.

Theatre Critic

Since its first publication in 1925, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy has gone from a novel to a play to the movies and the opera.  Jacques Barzun reviewed the new book’s adaptation as a play directed by Patrick Kearney for “At the Theatre”The Columbia Varsity, volume VIII [8], number 1 (October 1926), pages 16, 28.

Editor-in-Chief

Looking for early hints of Jacques Barzun’s later greatness, glimpses can be caught in the eighth volume of The Columbia Varsity.  Pulling the Editor-in-Chief feather from his cap, he turns it into a busy quill.  The first issue (October 1926) contains no fewer than five articles bearing his imprimatur.  Thanks to the sharp eye of Jocelyn Wilk of the Columbia Archives, I have copies of the unsigned editorials, as well.  (They may not all be JB’s work, but the congratulations to Nicholas Murray Butler on the 25th anniversary of his inauguration as Columbia University President and the piece on Columbia’s newly established School of Library Service – with criticism of CU’s own libraries – are leading candidates for attribution.)  So, Barzun’s productivity must be noted first.

The cover price of “The Official Literary Magazine of Columbia University” was 25¢.  The previous academic year saw just two issues of Varsity, but Jacques promises to return to the standard of five issues per year by advertising an annual subscription for a dollar.  Offering subscribers two bits in savings might help the magazine’s finances early in the year, while preparing for the costs of publishing future issues … and capturing sales that might otherwise be missed later in the year as campus readers grew preoccupied with studies, papers, and exams.  His business sense was already apparent.

The magazine’s layout also changed.  JB and his staff replaced the previous year’s large format and graphic design focused cover with a handier size and simple decorative border, relying on words to arrest readers’ attention:  “WATERMELANCHOLIA”, “THE WOMAN CAUGHT IN ADULTERY SOLILOQUIZES AT HER WINDOW”, and Barzun’s own “TEXT-BOOKS AND TEDIOUSNESS”.  The future literary adviser to Scribner thought like a publisher from an early age.

There is also an interesting coincidence of a new department in the magazine that prefigures similar instances later in his career.  “THE WASTE BASKET” bears a title that suggests the brief, informal treatment of lighter subjects that would premiere in the April 1947 issue of Harper’s as “After Hours” – the same month that Barzun became the magazine’s chief book critic.  Less than a decade later a similar feature,“The Scholar’s Scratch Pad”, would be inaugurated by Jacques in The American Scholar (Winter 1954–55), pages 96–98.

Clifton Fadiman best described this particular Barzun gift:

“Among his deeply civilized talents is one for the light essay.  That adjective is imprecise.  For, whether Mr. Barzun writes on baseball (see pp. 159–163 of his God’s Country and Mine) or on Charles Darwin, he permeates his formidable analytic and generalizing power with such wit, grace and charm that the result contradicts physical law, and possesses weight without gravity.”

– from Fadiman’s introduction of Barzun’s “Trains and the Mind of Man” in Holiday, February 1960, at page 11.

New pages for Barzun’s signed contributions to the October 1926 issue of Varsity forthcoming as opportunity allows.

American Panorama

Short critical introductions to books recommended in American Panorama, Eric Larrabee, ed., New York: New York University Press, 1957.  Kessinger Publishing Company [reprint], 2010.

This volume’s subtitle summarizes the Carnegie Foundation project:  “Essays by Fifteen American Critics on 350 Books Past and Present Which Portray the U.S.A. in Its Many Aspects”.  Please click on either link above to view more details of the project, Barzun’s contributions to it, and recommendations of his own books included in the set.

Total Experience

Jacques Barzun’s third contribution to the May 1926 (Commencement) issue of The Columbia Varsity rounds out the critical views of “Obiter Dicta” and the fiction of “Fantastique”:  “A Total Experience” may be a straightforward review of Richard Kane Looks at Life: A Philosophy for Youth (Houghton Mifflin, 1926) by Irwin Edman, but it held real importance for Jacques.

Irwin Edman

Remembering from “Irrelevant Maturity” that JB was not shy about tangling with Columbia faculty, his praise for Professor Edman’s fiction shouldn’t be suspected as sycophancy.  Barzun describes Edman as “an admirable teacher” in a 1993 letter, recalling his course in modern philosophy that introduced Jacques to the thought of William James.

The significance of Edman’s Richard Kane and Barzun quotations from the review appear on the page linked below:

“A Total Experience”, review of Richard Kane Looks at Life: A Philosophy for Youth by Irwin Edman, The Columbia Varsity, volume 7, number 2 (May 1926), pages 15,25.

[This post adds categories and tags for this bibliography item since those can’t be assigned to pages.]

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