Jacques Barzun and a Question of Friendship

Every reasonably educated person knows of Jacques Barzun from at least some of his celebrated writings on more subjects than most people can even talk about. Many of these writings, crowned by the monumental From Dawn to Decadence, published in 2000, will endure as long as people read.

But it is not Jacques’ peerless intellectual career that I want to comment on here. It is something that I am tempted to call more personal. I resist this temptation in deference to Jacques’ disapproval of this word’s vapidly subjective generality. Instead I will say that my subject is a cluster of Jacques’ humane qualities that have lastingly affected me and, I dare say, everyone who has known Jacques directly for very long. These qualities are his unwavering civility, remarkable generosity, and exemplary respect for friendship.

Like so many others, I had known Jacques from his writings years before I met him. And when I became a graduate student at Columbia in the late 1960s near the end of his tenure as Provost — succeeded by his appointment as University Professor — I found his dignified, formal manner almost as intimidating as his achievements. But he made his doctoral seminar (taught for decades with Lionel Trilling, but not that year) an occasion for stimulating and civilized discussions of books, ideas, and history, guided by his provocative questions. He would sometimes leave his questions hanging in the air without requiring firm answers, or he might respond to an answer given with a hint of disagreement in the words: Do you think so? (as, I recall, he did to a remark of mine on the quality of Lord Byron’s letters). Those unanswered questions nagged our minds. That was the point. They kept our student intellects working — just as Jacques’ fabled way with an editorial pencil changed the way we thought no less than how we wrote, which was his intent, for reasons he explained and illustrated in many a book.

When I told Jacques I wanted to write a dissertation on modern nihilism, he assented and then, characteristically, he asked: Are nihilists idealists? This terse question turned the subject around and led me to look at some authors and ideas anew. It also stayed with me, obviously, to this day. But perhaps the most telling question Jacques has ever asked me came as an aside in a meeting in his expansive office on the ground floor of Low Library. I had an appointment to discuss some matter pertaining to the doctoral seminar or my dissertation, and I was lugging three volumes of the letters of James Joyce that I had just purchased at the beloved Ideal Bookstore across Amsterdam Avenue from the campus. I suppose I thought the renowned Professor Barzun would note my scholarly interest in Joyce and say something profound about his work. As I sat down beside the imposing desk with the burden on my lap, he glanced at the books and said: Joyce was not a very good friend, was he?

I sat in silence. Not only did I have no answer, I didn’t even quite know what the question meant. Of all the things that Jacques Barzun might have said about James Joyce, I would never have expected him to ask a leading question about such a thing as whether or not Joyce was a good friend. At the time, I wasn’t sure if this was a passing observation or that it expressed a summation of Joyce’s life and work. Later I came to see that the question shed light on more than James Joyce.

Jacques has always valued friendship, by philosophy, I would say, as much as by temperament. The Romanticists, whom he taught us how best to understand, extolled friendship as a powerful human bond. Jacques admired that. And he has nurtured friendships and other human bonds of his own, high and low — performing favors, furthering careers, readily collaborating, graciously bringing pleasures. Although he does not make a point of it in Dawn, he surely sees the degradation of friendship in the exaltation of self-indulgence that, among other things, signaled to him Western culture’s descending decadence in the twentieth century. Jacques might well see Joyce playing a role in this descent as a Modernist who — so unlike the Romanticists — cared far more for his own literary career and his self-conscious art than for anything or anyone else, including friends. This could be said of many an artist and ambitious person, of course, especially, perhaps, during the last century or so. It could not be said of Jacques Barzun.

Jacques has extended his generosity, civility, and friendship to countless people over the years. I recall with fondness that following the year-long doctoral seminar he one day handed me a copy of Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage, which he had edited, with an inscription addressed to me in his perfect handwriting: In hopes of its usefulness and with good wishes. It was the generous gesture of a teacher and mentor. I cherished the gift and the gesture.

Shortly after I received my degree, Jacques wrote at the outset of an exchange of correspondence between us that I must now address him by his first name because colleagueship requires it. Not friendship exactly. Colleagueship. The invitation reflected Jacques’ regard for form and distinctions, propriety and tradition, along with his eminent civility. As he wrote in Dawn, tact is the great art that makes for civility. And he demonstrated in that work how disregard for form, the blurring of distinctions, ignorance of traditions, loss of tact and civility are sure symptoms of cultural decadence. Jacques’ invitation informed me that since I was no longer a student and had entered the profession, I was a now colleague. In time I would also come to enjoy a measure of Jacques’ friendship, too, at least professional friendship, in small and large ways.

It was through an act of professional friendship that Jacques subsequently arranged for me to write a book on the origins of the Aspen Institute, where he had led seminars and lectured in the 1950s and 1960s. He did this in the first place as a favor to the widow of the Institute’s founder, who was a long-time social friend of his and who wanted such a book written. And he did it as a favor to me, a fledgling scholar, providing me an opportunity to delve into a good story and write a cultural history. For these favors, both the widow and I owed Jacques an enduring debt, just as do hundreds of other people whose lives he has touched by sharing his prodigious knowledge, exercising his incisive editing, opening doors with his expansive influence, and other acts of civility, generosity, and friendship. In all of these things, as in so many others, Jacques Barzun has set a standard to live up to.

I now know that Jacques’ question to me long ago about James Joyce said much about himself. And there can be no doubt how anyone who has known Jacques very long would reply, with full appreciation of its ramifications, to the leading question: Jacques Barzun is a good friend, isn’t he?

James Sloan Allen has written on a wide variety of topics, is the author of The Romance of Commerce and Culture: Capitalism, Modernism, and the Chicago-Aspen Crusade for Cultural Reform and Worldly Wisdom: Great Books and the Meanings of Life, and has edited and introduced the forthcoming William James on Habit, Will, Truth, and the Meaning of Life.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial