We met at Mortimer Adler’s birthday party. I was an editorial assistant at Charles Scribner’s Sons, when, in November 1992, Macmillan Publishing Company (of which Scribners was an imprint) hosted a party to celebrate Professor Adler’s ninetieth birthday. I asked a colleague, Who is the tall, distinguished looking gentleman over there? Jacques Barzun?! I had bought his book On Writing, Editing, and Publishing when I was a freshman in college (around the time he retired from Columbia and began a second career as editorial adviser to Scribners). I had to go over and say how much I had enjoyed his book. We talked for a while — very easily and naturally — about publishing and writing, and I recall being surprised that in a room full of well-read publishing people, someone of his stature was not surrounded by admirers hoping for a moment of his time. He mentioned that he would be interested in reading a new Patricia Cornwell mystery that Scribners had just published. I sent it to him, and within days I received a thank you note and a copy of the new edition of On Writing, Editing, and Publishing, inscribed,
For Mark LaFlaur, an early reader of these essays, this indispensable second edition, with best regards, Jacques Barzun. And so began a friendship and correspondence that has gone on for some fifteen years — a short time in his very full, accomplished life.
When I was a freelance writer and editor in New Orleans in the late 1990s, I had an opportunity to read the manuscript of From Dawn to Decadence. I asked Jacques if I might come to San Antonio to interview him for a profile I was hoping to sell to the New York Times Magazine or Harper’s, etc. to appear upon the publication of this new book. He and Marguerite invited me to be their guest for two days of interviews in September 1999 — a very generous welcome from someone with whom I was more an admiring correspondent than a social friend. For two days I asked him about the four periods of the past five hundred years covered in From Dawn to Decadence, about the idea (and fact) of decadence, about the colloquium with Lionel Trilling, and many other things.
A few bits from the interview transcript:
Q. What kind of sense of history, or appetite for history, would you like for readers to have, now and in years to come?
Barzun: I think a good starting point for the ideal reader would be a lively interest in art and social thought, coupled with an interest in what is going on now in those two realms. So that with knowledge of past art and all the theories of government and society and philosophy and religion that such a person would have, curiosity would be aroused by the present situation in seeing how the past . . . has led to the present state of affairs.
Q.What meaning of decadence do you want readers to understand?
Barzun: I want them first to believe what I say when I call it a falling off, which is a literal translation into English of the Latin derivative. . . . Loss of nerve, loss of intention . . . confusion, disarray, lack of originality, desperate means of looking new when actually very little is offered. . . . it ought to be looked on with calm and the knowledge that the worse it gets, the closer we are to renovation.
Q. The conditions for new ideas currently do not look promising. How will we recognize them?
Barzun: Well, they arise all over the place. . . . I’m sure that right now in many places there are original ideas about government, society, morals, art, literature, whatever you like. But they are shushed, or not even paid any attention to, or they are looked upon as a crank notion. All right. When everything is really flat, the new idea can shine in its own light because there’s hardly even any background. It’s there, visible from all sides of the horizon. And it’s the beginning of something new.
Barzun: If I’ve done anything, I hope I have conveyed in the book what a mix culture is and how many different patterns, seemingly contradictory, you can make out of it.
Upon the publication of From Dawn to Decadence in April 2000, the New-York Historical Society hosted a conversation between Jacques and the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (introduced by Dr. Kenneth T. Jackson). I came to New York for the occasion, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review published a brief biographical sketch and my transcript of the conversation (
The Writing Life: A Talk Between Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Jacques Barzun, May 21, 2000).
One of Jacques’s most impressive personal qualities is the attention and respect he gives to the young. He listens attentively and he is prompt in replying to letters, in which he addresses us as Mr. or Ms. —, even though we may be many decades younger. There is a great generosity in his attention and the respect he shows you that makes you believe in yourself — sometimes perhaps to an extent you’re not sure you deserve. But then, when you talk with him, or read one of his books, you realize that maybe someone with his judgment and experience as a teacher knows something you don’t.
I have often thought how fine it would have been to be a student in the famous Barzun-Trilling Colloquium at Columbia, or to have been a student of Jacques’s in any class. But any regrets about having been
born too late disappear when I remember my good fortune in having had a chance to meet him that November afternoon in 1992 — and to continue the conversation through all these many years later.
Kew Gardens, New York
October 18, 2007
Some of the best sources about Jacques Barzun are Arthur Krystal’s new profile
Age of Reason in The New Yorker (Oct. 22, 2007); Lionel Trilling,
A Personal Memoir in From Parnassus: Essays in Honor of Jacques Barzun (Harper & Row, 1976); Richard Franko Goldman,
Portrait: Jacques Barzun (American Scholar, Winter 1972–73). Autobiographical writings are rare. Two of the best are: Barzun, The Energies of Art (Harper & Row, 1956), pp. 5–6; Barzun,
Toward a Fateful Serenity in Clifton Fadiman, ed., Living Philosophies (Doubleday, 1990).