“Dear Jacques”, “Dear Lionel”

In 1949, when I was a Columbia College senior of quite limited means, Lionel Trilling kindly took me on as his research assistant. He and Jacques Barzun, the closest of intellectual companions, were in continual touch, and I often served as a courier between them.

Trilling’s office was on the fourth floor of Hamilton Hall, Barzun’s a few floors above, connected by phone and a short flight of stairs. I recall frequently ferrying “Dear Jacques” and “Dear Lionel” letters back and forth between them. Perhaps these greatly gifted critics of mid-century American and European culture disliked the ephemerality of phone talk and understandably preferred to record their exchanges in more lasting form.

In those days Lionel always wore a business suit to class, perhaps signifying his dual habitation in the larger world of affairs as well as within the academy. Jacques always appeared to be dressed in a suit even when in shirtsleeves.

Hamilton Hall in those days was a veritable galaxy of intellect, and it was entrancing to serve as courier between such luminaries.

John D. Rosenberg, William Peterfield Trent Professor of English at Columbia University, has written The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius, Carlyle and the Burden of History, The Fall of Camelot: A Study of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, and Elegy for an Age: The Presence of the Past in Victorian Literature, and edited The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial