“Jacques Barzun.” Those three syllables, frequently pronounced around the dinner table when I was growing up, were essentially synonymous with “civilization.” My father, Clifton Fadiman, had met Jacques at Columbia, where they were part of the charmed mid-1920s circle of which Mortimer Adler, Lionel Trilling, and Meyer Shapiro were also members. They were all dazzling, but my father made it clear that Jacques did everything — and I mean everything — better than any American-born man could ever hope to do. He was more civilized when he spoke. He was more civilized when he wrote. I had the impression that he was more civilized even when he walked down a sidewalk or ate a sandwich.
And how could he not be? In 1956, in The Energies of Art, Jacques wrote:
To be born near the beginning of the decade before the first world war and at the center of the then most advanced artistic activity in Paris is an accident bound to have irreversible consequences on the mind. The first pictures seen: Cubist; the first music heard: Stravinsky’s Sacre; the first poetry and drama: Futurist, Simultanist, “experimental,” like the first new building visited, which was August Perret’s “modernistic” skyscraper apartment, rue Franklin — all this, thanks to childhood’s uncritical acceptance of the given as normal, could not help forming the most natural introduction to art as it is made.
Seven years ago, Jacques told me that he had sat on Apollinaire’s knee as a young boy in the house of his father, the avant-garde poet Henri Martin-Barzun. Apollinaire said, “I can make a word mean anything that I want. You see this blotting paper? I call that an archipelago!” A few years later, Jacques was ready for college. “My father said French universities were shot to pieces. No one was left of any caliber — they were all in the trenches. He told me I could go to Oxford, or there was a very good university in New York called Columbia. Without hesitation, I said, ‘I want to go to America.’” Thank heavens.
Last night, pondering the approach of Jacques’s hundredth birthday, I looked through the B section of the letters my father had saved. I’m my father's literary executor, so I own those letters now. There was a fat sheaf of Barzun correspondence. Over the decades, Jacques wrote him about Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas Love Peacock, William James, Mother Goose, Victor Hugo, Jean de La Bruyère, François de La Rochefoucauld, the presence of women on the Columbia campus (“the parietal rules might well be renamed parturietal”), the difficulty of reading encyclopedia articles on a computer (“like using a bicycle to cross one’s backyard”), and the deteriorating quality of French cheeses. My favorite was a 1995 letter recommending several crime novelists he thought my father might enjoy. The “reliable” ones included P.D. James, E. C. Bentley, Michael Gilbert, Ruth Rendell (“She writes two types of stories: stick to crime!”), and J. J. Marric (“Marric is also John Creasy and various other names — only Marric is good”). “AVOID ALTOGETHER: John Dickson Carr and his other self, Carter Dickson.”
In 1998, a year before my father's death, I became editor of The American Scholar and, as a result, the fortunate recipient of some Barzun correspondence myself. Jacques, a longtime member of the Editorial Board, had contributed to the Scholar in each of six decades, and by the time I left the journal in 2004, he had added a seventh. As anyone who has ever worked with Jacques knows, every word was important to him. Every comma was important to him. (His words were invariably beautiful, and so were his commas.) I don’t expect to receive any more letters signed with a fountain pen, in blue ink, the top of the J canted at a jaunty angle and the q connected to the u from the bottom of the tail. But that signature, like the graceful lines that preceded it, will always strike me in the same way. It will always look civilized.
Anne Fadiman’s most recent collection of essays is At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).