In the Company of Barzun

Three decades ago, between graduate degrees, I entered the publishing business — then still a family house — by accident of birth. It was to be a part-time job before moving on to a life in academe. The job I owed to my father; the fact that I never moved on until I retired from the firm almost thirty years later (by then a branch of an entertainment conglomerate), I owe to Jacques Barzun, who arrived that same year (1975) as my father’s literary advisor. There was, quite simply, no university in the country that could offer a young scholar a more engaging, inspiring, or brilliant mentor and colleague than Jacques. He set the highest standard for clear thinking and clear writing I have ever encountered, and I was the lucky beneficiary of his editorial and pitch-perfect tuning skills which he so generously gave to my books on Rubens and Bernini. I hope it won’t sound presumptuous to say that, almost two decades later, I would not change a word of either book: such is the level of reassurance that his correction and approval inspired. (The only other perfectionist of such authenticity and authority I have ever known — in a very different context — was the soprano-turned-teacher Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the gold standard of singing.)

When Jacques wrote the definitive history of the past five hundred years, From Dawn to Decadence, he sent me the manuscript; my disappointment that my new corporate parents were unable to win the bidding for the book was more than compensated by being mentioned in it; I discovered that I’d much rather be a footnote in a Barzun book than a name gilded on the spine of any other! But let my father have the final say, for I fully subscribe to everything he said about Jacques in his 1990 memoir In the Company of Writers, and he would want to celebrate his most illustrious friend at this centennial in his own words, for which I am honored to serve as scrivener, in loco parentis:

Jacques is one of the most erudite of men. He is in a class with Dr. Johnson for encyclopedic knowledge, literary taste, and common sense. It is virtually impossible to find something he does not know about. I am not surprised that his title as an overseas member of Cambridge University is Extraordinary Fellow.

He also knows very firmly what he believes and doesn’t believe, and that was for us a great model. I mean that for me and for Scribners, one of the benefits of working with him was that his intellectual standards, his command of the literature in many fields, his grasp of pedagogy, and his philosophical view of life simply by contagion raised all our own standards. I know that by just watching him work he made me more demanding of simplicity and clarity in my writing.

He is the best editor I have ever seen — and the most efficient. He works steadily, making deft intermarginal notes that are right on target. I have not written anything in the last dozen years that Jacques didn’t improve by these deft touches. I studied them to see if I could do the same for myself, but I never could. He has helped ever so many writers in that same way, and none that he has helped could ever understand the mystery of Jacques’s ability to find the mot juste or whatever was required to clarify or simplify. He is a bewildering virtuoso.

For example, when we worked together with two authors on a book about the Rockefeller family, Jacques, with the authors’ full consent, edited the huge typescript, cutting, tightening, improving every page. The authors called it Barzunizing. These writers were not tyros, they were professionals, and they just couldn’t believe what he was able to do by way of saying what they wanted to say. Working with him was like working with Goethe or somebody of that order. It’s a chance that comes once in a lifetime. . . .

We have been colleagues and friends for fifteen years, and it has meant a great deal to me. I have never found a situation in which I didn’t feel it wise to talk things over with him, for the sake of a new idea, a new approach, a hint about a possible danger, or opportunity.

Charles Scribner, Jr. (1921-1995)

Charles Scribner III has written Peter Paul Rubens (1989), Gianlorenzo Bernini (1991), and most recently, The Shadow of God: A Journey Through Memory, Art, and Faith (2006).

The Jacques Barzun Centennial