gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

What next?

First a bit of context:  at nineteen I discovered Jacques Barzun and have benefited from his wisdom ever since.  Reading his books introduced me to new wonders – his own and those of others.  Admiration for his style, wit, and critical judgment kept me coming back for more … of his books, his leading articles, and the works of artists, authors, and musicians he praises.  After a dozen years or so of such sampling, I came to believe that Barzun deserved to be better known.  I recognized too how difficult it would be to clearly see his work from the great number and variety of perspectives he affords.  I began to gather his works, using Virgina Xanthos Faggi’s selected bibliography in From Parnassus (1976) as a checklist.  And the wonders only increased as I read more of his books, reviews, translations, and essays.  Along the way I updated her bibliography, expanding the earlier selections while adding scores of items published after 1976.

When HarperCollins published A Jacques Barzun Reader in 2002, the jacket announced that its editor, Michael Murray, was at work on a biography of Barzun. Delighted at the news, I offered Mr. Murray the use of my bibliographic database and tabbed collection.  He modestly calls his recently published portrait of Jacques a “helpful introduction,” inviting other writers to examine Barzun’s career and works in detail.  I hope to assist them, too, from contemporaries to future generations. Barzun’s example and works will stand the test of time.

What next?  The bibliography has grown by about 500 items since I last provided Mr. Murray with an updated version.  That enlargement continues as more publications bring their archives online and whenever I get a chance to scroll through microfilm for others that no longer publish.  I also expect to discover more when opportunity allows another visit to Columbia University, especially its Rare Book and Manuscript Library. So one continuing project is a complete Barzun bibliography.

The latest effort is just getting started.  Michael Murray has returned my Barzuniana, which survived cross country shipments to and fro, a trip by road and barge to Alaska, and two additional waterborne moves.  The convenience of a concentrated collection for Barzun students like me would be a frustrating loss in the event of fire, sinking or natural disaster.  So the next project is to digitally preserve the collection.  I will gradually turn my originals or copies of articles into portable document format (pdf) files for safe keeping on disks and in cloud storage.

Having set these goals, I look forward to rediscovering the contents.  Barzun’s brilliance is my reward for enduring such bibliographic and archival tedium. (Encouragement from readers of these pages and posts would also be welcome.) During that process, I plan to post – with subjects tagged – about items scanned or added to the bibliography. With luck, the pleasures I rediscover may be added to your own.

4 thoughts on “What next?

  1. WHO are you? I understand the deliberate self-effacement: The subject, especially for men in the 21st century, ridden by a crippling self-consciousness, is everything, and the discussant, by comparison, nothing, but still, it is frustrating to discover a person whom one conceives has correctly estimated the height and weight of his great subject choosing a sort of anonymity for himself.

    Is your name Jay Hafling? Do you live in Vancouver, BC or Vancouver, WA? What do you do? When you get your Barzun bibliography digitized, may I look at it?

    For me, the Book of Books is The House of Intellect. The miraculous instinctive mastery of the English language, a mastery that could only have been attained in the cradle and imbibed with one’s mother’s milk from an American mother and an American father sprung themselves from at least ten generations of ancestors with prodigious powers of articulation in English, the gigantic powers of naming new and hitherto unseen things, only to be compared to the original linguistic miracles wrought by nameless pre-Gilgamesh bards and seers and namers–this staggered me, astounded me, obsessed me, and has continued to do that for the last 45 years.

    Like you, I find everything about this man wonderful, infinite–one endless invitation to reflection, adventuring, finding joy everywhere. As for my feelings about Barzun, I like John Jay Chapman’s saying about William James, “Without realizing it, I relied on his sanctity like sunlight.”

    I live in Chicago. I write promotions for a company that specializes in giving editorial advice to corporate editors of employee newsletters. I’m 67 years old. I’m a graduate of the University of Chicago. More than 40 years ago, I decided I wasn’t fit to be a teacher, because I wasn’t a creature classifiable in the same species as Jacques Barzun.

  2. I’m flattered by your interest in me, but not at all surprised by your enthusiasm for Jacques Barzun’s outlook and talents. There are more of us than I once imagined. Most seem to prefer – as I did until now – to read his works, reflect, and cultivate themselves, following Barzun as far as natural ability allows.

    Though my name is famous – John Adams – I am not a descendent of the presidents. I should not be confused with the founding director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, nor with the composers who share the name (one of whom, like me, is an Alaskan). I may get around to adding an “About” page someday, but for the time being I prefer to keep the focus on Barzun. The fact is that I am an amateur … of Barzun in the good Latin sense, but a newcomer to building a website.

    Your appreciation of The House of Intellect (HI) must reverberate with a true Webmaster, Leo Wong:
    Perhaps you’ve already come across his story of finding HI in his local library, fittingly in Hawaii (HI). His enthusiasm led him to Morningside Heights and a Columbia degree. A reply to a comment is probably not the best place to publicize such a good resource. So I’ll add links eventually. Even then, Mr. Wong will have the best collection.

    Centenarian Jacques was responsible for pulling me into the 21st century’s new world of social media. I joined Facebook in 2007 to read postings at the Jacques Barzun Fan Club begun by your fellow Chicagoan, Charles Huff: Seeing that you’re already a member, I add the link here for the convenience of others.

    Thank you for the laughter that your comment provoked. Your lacteal theory of linguistic brilliance in our native tongue calls to mind the time Wendell Taylor addressed his friend Jacques as “a dolichocephalic widower” (Murray, p. 218). Realizing that JB and WHT are anything but phrenologists, we chuckle along at the inside joke. And we all know scarcely literate, proud American boobs whose lousy English has less to do with their mother’s lactation than with imitation of their parents’ poor usage. Considering that poverty is a form of poor usage, empathy may help us to fight the infection of disdain. (Five years of my stint as a teacher devoted to barrio students taught me that much.) In any case, earnest literalists can be a menace, especially when armed with “agendas.” Let’s have none of that here, and more free-wheeling phrases like yours describing Barzun’s “gigantic powers of naming new and hitherto unseen things.”

    Mr. Sweetland, may I call you, my newest Barzun brother, Bill? (Please address me as John, everyone, and I won’t misapprehend your meaning.) I hasten to add that I look forward to welcoming Barzun sisters, too, and recommend to them the Women’s Quarterly interview of JB (Autumn 2000):

    Regarding my Barzun bibliography, its original purpose – helping an eventual Barzun biographer – has been served. The need to see JB’s work from so many perspectives called for something more than a straightforward list, so I assembled it as a database. FileMaker Pro has both Mac and Windows versions, but more importantly can be configured for Internet searches. Someday I hope to accomplish that, too. Until I complete Barzun’s bibliography, however, and following Jacques’ recommendation, I won’t be sharing any drafts.

    Starting this website will have, I hope, an even broader effect. By tagging all of the subjects included in Barzun’s articles, rather than just those mentioned in my posts, I expect to draw attention to unsuspected elements in his work, particularly in periodicals. For example, though I didn’t mention Jonathan Swift in the “Ping-Pong with Mortimer Adler” post, Barzun does so in his “Great Books” review in The Atlantic Monthly (December 1952). Google found the post and returned it yesterday (26 Jan. 2012), using the “Swift” tag I’d attached. Anyone who’s read “Swift, or Man’s Capacity for Reason” in The Energies of Art might be glad to follow JB’s broad wake into The Atlantic.

    I suspect that you would have been a fine teacher, helping students to climb the ladder that leads to Barzun and other lofty attainments. Without good teachers at every level, we slide together to the lowest level. I agree completely that his work is “one endless invitation to reflection, adventuring, finding joy everywhere.” You sound like the perfect fellow for a bit of archival adventuring at the University of Chicago. Perhaps you’ll return service at the ping-pong posting. Thanks for your comment, sir.

  3. Dear John Adams,

    In February you posted “Father and Son”, an article that interests me immensely. One of your tags is Sebastien Voirol. This man is a quite interesting fellow whose diary I found in a Parisian archive a few months ago.

    Later I noticed that Jacques Barzun had left his library to Yale, and in that collection there were some letters from the Voirols (wife was Claudine Voiroil, née Perret, sister of the famous Perret brothers). There is also a rare collection of poems, an unpublished novel by Voirol, et cetera. I never realized that Jacques was the son of Voirols close friend Henri Barzun, so thank you for making that clear – now I understand why everything was in Jacques’ possession. I guess I’m simply wondering whether you could help me with more info on that rare article that was published in Orpheus, nr 34? In that case, please send me an email. I live in Sweden but I’ve heard the internet is worldwide, and it doesn’t take more than instant to get from one edge of the map to the other, so it shouldn’t be a problem really?

    Nice blog! Good job.

  4. Herr Joakim,

    Thank you for your kind words. Jacques Barzun’s writing does indeed appear in Yale’s libraries, including a Beinecke Library manuscript cache of his correspondence with the poet John Hollander, musicians John Kirkpatrick and Carl Ruggles, Harper & Row editor Joan Kahn, and libertarian social critic Albert Jay Nock. The bulk of Barzun’s papers, however, including letters, are held by Columbia University in the City of New York.

    Regarding Sebastien Voirol, young Jacques had this to say in Orpheus:

    “A more flexible spirit [than Fernand Divoire], less stern, more fanciful, is Sebastien Voirol, one-time Executive Secretary of the Paris Opera, whose work in orchestral poetry has demonstrated its possibilities in the realm of the lyrical as well as of the whimsical. His first work in this form was a lyrical drama in two acts, Le Sacre du Printemps, after the music of Stravinsky. It was published in Paris in 1913 and staged at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in 1917. In 1916 he wrote Tahi Nui, Ballet Orchestral, representative of all the grace, lyrical gift, and poetic insight he possesses, and which, of course, defy analysis. He is permeated with a sense of the symbolism of things; he sings the subtle ‘correspondances’ that were so vivid to Baudelaire. His imagery is a strange bouquet of the variegated sense impressions he has gathered during the course of a picturesque life—from his Swedish natal soil, from his well-loved Mediterranean, from Egypt and the African rand.
    “Voirol was the first to realize the verbal importance of the new technique. He uses it with great adroitness to convey in poetic voices the untamed lyricism of Stravinsky’s music, in the first poem to be written after music, reversing the traditionary mode. In a hybrid free-verse-orchestral form, he also published in 1921 and 1922 two volumes of lyrics, La Table de Circé and Palimpsestes.
    “On the critical side, Voirol participated, as one of the seven original signers, in the orchestral poetry manifesto of 1912. The next year, he published his best-known study on simultaneity, in which he says:
    ” ‘What poetry lacks is a new instrument. To vibrate in unison with our century, she must have a new song, vast, vigorous, and complex. The idea has occurred to [Henri] Barzun of suggesting a poetic form making for the harmonization of rhythms and sounds; the orchestral rendition of verbal—or rather vocal—harmonies, multiple, intense with life, as the chords of meaning, form and swell, sometimes shrill, sometimes sorrowful, in proportions hitherto unheard of.’ ” (pages 32–33)

    As you live in Sweden, you may already know that until recently Jacques’ grandson, Matthew Barzun, served as the U.S. Ambassador to your country.

Responses welcomed. Courtesy appreciated.

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