Amateur Detection

I discovered Jacques Barzun in paperback. Like countless others, I learned The Searcher’s Mind and Virtues from Barzun & Graff. Then in its third edition – the bright pink cover has since faded like the card catalog – The Modern Researcher prepared me to make a lucky find. Browsing in a Salvation Army thrift store, I spotted another Barzun title on a neglected shelf. The best investment I ever made was the dime spent that day for a paperback copy of Classic, Romantic and Modern.

Decades later I would come to see that work’s evolution and significance in Barzun’s life and thought. Back then I simply read more Barzun: Teacher in America that fall; then Darwin, Marx, Wagner; and that winter I learned the nature and value of passion from God’s Country and Mine. After graduation, Barzun’s books went to sea with me during four years of service as a naval officer. Returning to graduate school at Stanford, I began to use Virginia Xanthos Faggi’s bibliography in From Parnassus as a checklist and rediscovered that Jamesian agreeable leading I felt in college. The complex satisfaction found in reading even his briefest articles has drawn me back to Barzun for what will soon be thirty years.

A Stroll with William James opens with A Personal Note in which Barzun mentions a long conversation with a fellow James admirer who from time to time added the mysterious refrain ‘. . . and also Death!’ Ten years after the publication of my favorite Barzun book, the death of a roommate prompted me to wonder what things I was leaving undone. So in 1993 I wrote to Jacques Barzun for the first time. He kindly answered several questions, including how he had come to assemble that brilliant demonstration of translation within a language: ‘Romantic’—A Sampling of Modern Usage (first published as Chapter 9 in Romanticism and the Modern Ego, 1943). He replied, I was impelled to it by my having written an innocent article entitled ‘To the Rescue of Romanticism’ and finding it rejected for some six years before it was published in the American Scholar [Spring 1940]. I proved to myself that there was cause to look into the definition of the term. He went on to satisfy my curiosity about his first encounters with the works of William James and Alfred North Whitehead.

Barzun’s generous reply to a stranger was nonetheless disappointing. I had urged the great man to write an autobiography. He demurred, stating his principle that biography and autobiography are forms reserved for men of action exclusively. Writing and thinking are ‘doing’ only in a figurative, indirect sense, and there are thus no events for the biographer to narrate. I still regarded some type of biographer as inevitable, dreading the less principled kind of Ph.D. candidate anxious for a dissertation topic, the sort inclined to undertake a deconstruction of my hero. I embrace the word hero without hesitation – though it is impossible to agree with every one of his fearless opinions – for his example is as heroic as the scale of his work. I can understand the preference Barzun shares with Socrates for poison over prison, but I do not share his judgment In Favor of Capital Punishment. His point about inhumane prison conditions is often missed, but persons wrongly convicted of serious crimes at least stand some chance of being freed by future evidence when jailed rather than killed. Exoneration after death only relieves kith and kin. The value of Barzun’s best work can become obscured by such disputes. A bad biography could do worse, possibly for centuries. It would then take another mind as comprehensive as Barzun’s own – see that masterpiece Berlioz and the Romantic Century – to sweep away second-hand or second-rate judgments and restore his civilizing influence. Musical ignorance and rudimentary French disqualify this fisherman’s son for such mighty labor on his behalf.

Spurred by Barzun’s thought on sentimentality, however, I decided to take action. Ten years ago I began to update his bibliography, collected copies of his periodical works along the way, and organized them for the use of some future biographer. (Better than collecting baseball cards, and less expensive.) I envisioned caching the collection where prospective biographers would be likely to unearth it. That might scare off the ignoble savage tempted to shrink such a glorious head. The publication of From Dawn to Decadence confirmed my choice of hobbies. Then the appearance of A Jacques Barzun Reader two years later brought the welcome news that the anthology’s judicious editor was writing a biography of Jacques Barzun. So I corresponded with Michael Murray, that thoroughly civilized virtuoso, and offered my bibliographic database and binders for his use while preparing the book. I hope that having the collection on hand in Columbus has eased his burden more than increased it.

When Mr. Wong invited me to contribute this posting to the Centennial Celebration website he asked that I include things that other Barzun admirers might not know. I offer the following observations in the spirit of amateur detection.

The most surprising discovery came in Harper’s. Barzun debuted as chief book critic for the magazine in April 1947. I recommend his reviewer’s credo to any who have access to the bound volumes. Unfortunately, those pages were omitted from the University Microfilm reel. Yet Barzun is present there, too – in disguise. That month there appeared a new feature, After Hours, penned by a Mr. Harper. Magnification of that microfilmed alias reveals an author attending the Metropolitan Opera and the movie version of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. After Hours was the work of many hands, and continued after his departure from the magazine two years later, but the unifying cosmopolitan voice of Mr. Harper belongs to Mr. Barzun. When asked about After Hours, Jacques acknowledged his role, adding that William Carlos Williams didn’t like his squibs. I like the free play that Professor Barzun could give to his wit and range of interests while writing under that pseudonym.

Michael Murray’s generous selection in A Jacques Barzun Reader will sate many admirers. If devotees remain who are willing to follow an amateur detective’s lead, I suggest tracking down The Place and the Price of Excellence. Hundreds heard his address to Cornell’s Graduate School convocation in December 1958. Then his fine speech made its way – seriously – into the pages of Vogue (February 1, 1959). A good way to discover the effect of that work is in The Speaker’s Resource Book (Scott, Foresman, 1961), where the editors record the lasting impression Barzun’s address made at Cornell.

It may be impossible to run out of Jacques. The NBC Radio Collection at the Library of Congress contains dozens of recorded Conversation broadcasts in which Barzun was a guest. I have heard only a few. Clifton Fadiman hosted the program and later wrote that Barzun was its best conversationalist. Jacques also substituted for his friend Kip in Fadiman’s Party of One column for Holiday magazine: an essay on the detective story appears in the July 1958 issue and in the anthology Party of Twenty (Simon and Schuster, 1963); the February 1960 issue of Holiday contains Fadiman’s handsome introduction and Barzun’s cultural criticism, Trains and the Mind of Man. Highly recommended.

This amateur detection concludes with another lesser-known Barzun talk, The Bibliophile of the Future: His Complaints About the Twentieth Century. Given at the Boston Public Library on May 1, 1976, his address resounds in a print edition of 1,000 pamphlets. Literary survival was Barzun’s subject on that occasion. Beginning with the examples of Dryden’s recovery of Chaucer and Lamb’s revival of Shakespeare, Barzun warns that similar rescues of 20th century works may become impossible in the future. He describes the decay of modern paper made with esparto grass and the limitations of Cunha’s cocktail as a treatment. He goes on to mention some of his own efforts to rescue good authors from bad paper: Henry James, John Jay Chapman, the delicate novelist Anne Goodwin Winslow, and crime fiction classics that would eventually number 100 volumes. Barzun’s historically minded criticism – more durable than the best paper – deserves worldwide distribution, preservation, and use.

Finally, a word of thanks: Leo Wong has done us all a great service by making this gathering possible. There have been many occasions when I wanted to personally thank contributors for their anecdotes and reflections. I hope this blanket expression of gratitude will do . . . until we can talk Jacques face-to-face. Mystery lovers rendezvoused here in Alaska this year for Bouchercon XXXVIII. I submit that Mr. Wong’s Jacques Barzun Centennial Celebration (website & weblog) deserves the honorific title of Barzuncon I. I look forward to the day when the astonishing variety of Barzun admirers can assemble in some terrestrial place to enjoy conversation about any and all subjects amenable to the immortal Jacques Barzun.

John Adams, a Pacific Scholar-Gipsy currently homeported in Valdez, Alaska, is the proprietor of the blog gentle rereader . . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun. See also Jacques Barzun on Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust

The Jacques Barzun Centennial