Jacques Barzun promised to teach things I wanted to learn. That came first. From seemingly straightforward topics like research he turns out potent ideas simply expressed: “A Note Is First a Thought.” The explanation that follows makes irreducible sense, and the phrase makes the lesson stick. The talent to guide, to show the way, runs through all his works.
What came next made all the difference. The Eureka! event happened when I was an undergraduate. In a Salvation Army thrift shop I happened upon a paperback copy of Classic, Romantic, and Modern. That vein of gold runs deep into Barzun’s past. An essay begun in his twenties, “To the Rescue of Romanticism,” led to eight Lowell Lectures, further expansion into book form, and publication 18 years later of the second edition that I held in my hands. My true education began with the new preface:
If he is to be of use—and I have no use for any that is not usable—the cultural historian must lead a double life. He must see the strivings of past epochs with generous fellow feeling, and he must feel as well the needs—which include the lacks—of his own time. Out of the contrasts come, one hopes, the critical judgments that lead to truth.
A boundless critic with an enormous trove of cultural facts at his command, the dashing Barzun was fearless. When Jacques knew better than others, he shattered ossified convention to reveal a misconstrued original or to shine light on a worthy unknown, with reasons that teach something more. Yet he was no iconoclast. He valued tradition as much as innovation, providing that the heritage holds up under present conditions.
Barzun hooked me with his barbed wit, a humor that carries out his critical purposes. A reader’s delight also springs from Jacques’ own pleasures: masterworks of all kinds; languages, fit expression, translation of intended meaning; music and other fine arts; puzzles from history to detection; and the workings of mind itself. Whether writing as critic or cultural historian (or most often both at once), Jacques Barzun achieves what his hero William James advocates: “The sifting of human creations!”
I return to Barzun for his comprehensiveness – understanding articulated on an immense scale. He raises standards, especially mine. He makes me a better reader and helps to clarify my thinking. He introduced a great many people to wonders they might not have found on their own, or might not have perceived.
Like a great mountain climber, Jacques Barzun favored challenging terrain, seeking new routes to bypass old difficulties, obtain a new perspective, or scale a great peak. And he marked his routes well, leaving climbing aids for others. I hope to map some of them here.