I can best express my memories of Professor Barzun in action with the acronym SOCK — what a great teacher should have and what he had in abundance.
S for style. I took European Thought and Culture in the Spring of 1942, my junior year. One of the things I recall is the spare elegance of Professor B., his impeccably neat suits, his perfect and unhurried diction, and his habit of clutching the lapels of his jacket as he walked back and forth before us while lecturing.
O for originality. I cannot tell a lie, I don’t remember much of the lectures (at this point in my life I don’t remember much of a great many things) but the reading list, rather than containing only the expected names of giants, had works I had never heard of before and in some cases since. Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Death’s Jest Book and Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent are two names that have stuck — and Berlioz’s Memoirs, all very readable.
C is for competence, all around. The breadth of the professor’s interests and expertise was (and is) impressive, and I especially recall coming into his office one day with a question. He motioned me to a chair while continuing a telephone discussion with some publisher on what books by and about some nineteenth-century giant (Darwin? Wagner?) might be successfully reprinted and marketed, while dictating a list for someone else’s eye on the best recordings of Berlioz’s various works. And those were only two areas of the many that he had mastered. And . . .
K is for kindness. For one thing, I got an A from him on my term paper about the Paris Commune, which I specially cherished because he was no pushover as a grader, and when I dropped in to thank him and say goodbye — I was headed for army duty that would prevent my return for the senior year — he spoke to me warmly of my announced interest in more historical study and invited me to come back when I was through with saving the world from the Axis. As it happened, fate led me to another graduate school and a concentration in U.S. rather than European history. But I kept some contact with him and he wrote of his happiness that my interest had “matured and brought me into the profession.” In 1962, when I was program chairman of the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, that year in Chicago, he was good enough to chair a panel for me.
So Professor Barzun had, and to judge by his continued writing, still has plenty of sock, and I hope that he keeps socking it to them for a long time to come. Happy Birthday, J.B.