Jacques Barzun: Mentor, Collaborator, Friend

About a dozen years ago, I called up Jacques Barzun and asked if he knew anyone in New Orleans who was an authority on Louis Moreau Gottschalk and early French Quarter music. I was in the process of creating an American studies class trip to the Big Easy and needed a local contact. This was a long shot, but Barzun had answered so many exotic questions over the years on such a mind-boggling range of subjects that I thought it worth a try. He paused a moment, then came back to the phone with the name of Jack Belsom on Barracks Street, someone he suggested would be helpful and whom I could call without awkwardness. I did call Mr. Belsom — a colleague of Barzun’s, I assumed — and he has been the bedrock of my annual New Orleans journey ever since. “The astonishing thing,” he told my students a few weeks ago, “is that I have never spoken to Jacques Barzun and never laid eyes on him.”

This is a typical example of Barzun’s worldliness, which is broad yet astonishingly specific, abstract yet mysteriously personal: he not only seems to know everything but also everybody who knows anything. He not only knew all about Gottschalk but, perhaps more important, about the current man on the scene, the essential human connection. He even seemed to know that Belsom, like Jacques himself, would be charming and generous. Over the years, it has never occurred to me to ask how he knows these things. He simply does; that’s what it means to be Barzun.

I initially connected with him through another exotic interest: the Victorian and Edwardian ghost story. In 1978, right after my dissertation, Elegant Nightmares, became a book, Barzun wrote to tell me he enjoyed it — even though I had never taken his classes or met him. I had admired him since my undergraduate days in South Carolina; no one knew more about cultural history than Barzun, I believed even back then, and no one expressed himself with greater refinement. His letter thus meant the world to me. I remember showing it to my fellow adjuncts with quivering excitement, not knowing that this was only the beginning of one of the most rewarding connections in my life.

My Columbia classmate Arthur Krystal (who wrote the savvy 100th birthday article on Barzun for The New Yorker) was the person who gave me Barzun’s number and encouraged me to pick up the phone. Arthur was a forceful, sophisticated New Yorker and I a timid expatriate Southerner, so I balked. Despite Barzun’s letter, I felt awkward approaching someone I held in such high regard. When I finally called, I found him affable and easy to speak with, not at all the aloof “house of intellect” mandarin I had feared. There was a give and take that seemed flowing and natural, even though he was clearly the mentor, I the student. For someone with such a formidable intellect, he was surprisingly modest and other-directed: I’ve always been eager to hear about his next book, but he mainly wants to talk about my projects and how they are progressing, not his. At first I related to him through our common interest in the ghost story; the Barzun-Taylor annotated bibliography of “the literature of mystery, detection, and related genres” had been my source of enlightenment on the genre for many years. Later, when he discovered that my greatest passion was for music and that my favorite Barzun book was Berlioz and the Romantic Century, we began talking about composers and the New York concert scene.

My spook period wasn’t quite over. When a packager approached me in the early 80s to edit something called The Penguin Encylopedia of Horror and the Supernautral, I held my breath and asked Barzun if he would be interested in writing the introduction. To my surprise and delight, he agreed, and gradually committed to other articles in the volume. Suddenly a rather odd project took on real cachet and excitement. When the book came out in 1986, I invited him over to my apartment for a celebration, along with Carl Woodring, my dissertation sponsor (another extraordinary mentor). I was young then, and Barzun seemed like an old sage; if he showed up at all, he would surely be creaking about on a cane with someone leading him. Instead, he appeared alone at my door, dapper and elegant. He was there to celebrate a ghostly encyclopedia, but I don’t remember talking about spooks. He and Woodring engaged in a fascinating conversation about Columbia in the 1950s and 60s. I also remember showing him my first CD, then a new medium – Robert Shaw’s performance of the Berlioz Requiem – and playing the Dies Irae at a dangerously high volume, both of us marveling at the wide dynamic range. It was a sublime afternoon.

After I got to know Barzun, I visited him at his Scribner’s office on Fifth Avenue, where we had wide-ranging conversations about literature and music. By then, I was writing essays and book reviews. (By chance, Saturday Review assigned me Barzun’s A Stroll With William James, a conflict of interest I eagerly embraced). I modeled my work on Barzun’s ideal of writing clear prose for the Johnsonian common reader, gradually discovering that a surprising number of my contemporaries, weary of academic jargon, were doing the same. Barzun was a huge help in my academic career, writing letters on my behalf and coaching me through the treacherous waters of academic politics. One subject we did not discuss was politics: I told him early on I was “an old-fashioned Southern liberal,” and that seemed to both charm him and end the topic once and for all.

In the late 80s, Barzun continued to be an inspiring mentor and collaborator, a double role that never seemed awkward. For my 1990 anthology Words on Music, he contributed the preface (an article on how to write about music that is the template for my own efforts) as well as pieces on opera and Liszt’s literary taste. He expressed chagrin at being a “repeater” in the anthology until he realized there were others as well, including Berlioz and Shaw. In the middle of the project, he showed me a remarkable series of Berlioz articles: an expansive piece called “Music as Science and Sentiment” plus Berlioz’s takes on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the late quartets. None of these had appeared in English, and Barzun offered to translate them for the book. These gave the anthology an enormous lift, and I was deeply grateful. When I asked him to send me a bill, he declined, telling me his work was “either worthless or beyond evaluation.”

In the 1990s, Barzun gave me facts, pep talks, and cultural nuances as I struggled through my next project, New World Symphonies: How American Culture Changed European Music. Again, he seemed to know everything about everybody, on both sides of the Atlantic. Initially, I was fearful he would disapprove of the book, but he was open to its argument and predicted it would “surprise the critics.” The most startling moment came when I was interviewing him about Varèse, one of his great enthusiasms, and realized that the reason the anecdote he was telling seemed so strangely old was that he was talking about Varèse’s father. Barzun’s sense of time is certainly not everyone’s: I remember a dozen years ago when he first told me about From Dawn to Decadence, which he called a “history of modern culture.” It begins with the Renaissance.

When Barzun sent me a signed copy, I was amazed by its scope and length. How could a man in his 90s complete something so huge, sustained, and complex, even if one assumed that much of it was already in his head? When I went to my local Barnes and Noble and asked if they carried the book, the manager, clearly optimistic, showed me several large stacks piled up from the floor. A few days later, I checked again, and they were all gone, completely sold out.

I’ve missed Barzun keenly since his wife moved him down to Texas to get him out of the cold. I attended his farewell ceremony at Low Library; though festive and crowded, the event was also sad. He insisted the move was for the best — he was becoming wary of New York winters — but to me he still looked and sounded terrific, and I hated to see him leave the city and university that were so central to his intellectual life. I phone him often; even in his frailer moments, he sounds so much sharper and full of life than people a fraction of his age. Last year, when I asked him how he was faring, he said, “reasonably well for someone entering his second century.” I was stunned — obviously I’d lost track of the numbers. These days his voice sounds more attenuated than usual, and he can’t stay on the phone for long, but I’m content with these brief conversations, profoundly grateful that his boundless mind and generous spirit are still with us.

Jack Sullivan is Professor of English and Director of the American Studies program at Rider University. Dr. Sullivan was recently awarded an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his book Hitchcock's Music (Yale University Press, 2006).

The Jacques Barzun Centennial