I sometimes wonder if I was the last of Jacques Barzun’s doctoral candidates (June ’68). If so, I stand at the end of a long academic procession of graduate and undergraduate students who had the good fortune to know Jacques as a teacher, as well as the public scholar and critic widely recognized for his significant contribution to American letters.
Like all great teachers, Jacques encouraged students to take for examination what they tend to take for granted. “What is innocence?” he once asked to spark off discussion in his and Lionel Trilling’s celebrated seminar: it was certainly a new way of getting to grips with Blake for most of us. Although more than fifty years have passed, I still recall another puzzler: “What is a literary idea?” I have mulled this question over ever since and while no nearer a definition, continue to believe it deserves consideration. I wonder how many teachers have given their students something worth thinking about for so long. Jacques taught by questions, rather than answers.
Our essays were taken seriously, which helped us to take them seriously as well. Unfashionably perhaps, but successfully, Jacques taught by criticism, which for him meant the art of critiquing, of helping students become masters of what was on their minds rather than – as they often are — confused by it. In the end, they were meant to emerge from the process skilled at self-criticism. His cramped penciled comments in the margin — I am looking at some as I write this — challenged writers to take responsibility for what they put on paper, as they someday would have to for what they put into print.
There are other skills — once called virtues — needed by those who keep order in the house of intellect: good will and good humor; honest directness balanced with patience, both springing from an instinctive, unforced respect for all those one deals with; the ability to call up one’s learning in a way which enlightens without intimidating — even when it is, as in Jacques’ case, encyclopaedic; a preference for exploring ideas rather than pronouncing on them; a generous readiness to help those who look for help, and — more rare — to put at ease those who hesitate to ask; above all, the unfailing courtesy that makes discourse possible to begin with and rewarding to pursue. All these Jacques taught by example.
At his seminar, Jacques took us in as partners in a common pursuit — a rewarding one for all of us, transforming for many. It has been said that friendship is essentially a partnership, and in later years, that partnership at Fayerweather Hall often matured into a much prized friendship. Lucky enough to have been his students, and then honored to be among his many friends, we have double reason for gratitude and celebration on his centenary.
James Murphy is a retired US government officer and an occasional critic for the Times Literary Supplement.