A 100th Birthday Tribute to Jacques Barzun

I never had a class from Jacques Barzun, yet he has been my most influential teacher and mentor. As a Ph.D. candidate in American Literature at Columbia in the late 1960s I got the idea of doing a dissertation on the pianists Josef and Rosina Lhevinne (Rosina was alive) rather than on George Eliot and Henry James. One of my Literature professors suggested that Provost Jacques Barzun might, because of his interest in Cultural History and his expertise in Berlioz, be willing to sponsor it. I made an appointment and he agreed to do it. Three things quickly come to mind from the years in which he guided me.

  1. I worked extremely hard on the first chapter I submitted and was shocked, when he returned it to me, to see a dense webwork written all over the first page in blue ink. Thumbing through the rest I was equally surprised to find no further markings. I asked something like, "Does this mean the rest of it is okay?" He replied, "No, but if you apply the suggestions I have made on the first page, then the rest will be better too." No one had ever looked at my writing so keenly, or helped me so to improve it.
  2. From that point on I worked quite well until I hit my first-ever writing block. I was about four chapters into the thesis and, for some inexplicable reason, I could not write another word. He asked, “How do you do your writing?” I asked, “What do you mean?” He was interested in where my desk was and what I had on it. I explained that I was in a cubicle up in Butler where I had written my previous chapters with relative ease. I had everything I needed right on the desk: my interviews with Rosina for the pertinent years; the little green file box with all of Josef’s concert programs and reviews for that period in chronological order; etc. Yet for some reason I could not write that chapter. His advice was simple. He agreed that I already had what I needed. What he suggested was that I push all that stuff aside and write the narrative of the chapter off the top of my head, leaving space for the details to be filled in later. The advice worked, and that was the last block of that kind that I have had.
  3. Rosina Lhevinne was 88 years old when I began the project. She was then still teaching at the Aspen Music School in the summers. I wanted to tape some interviews with her in New York City before she left for the summer so I could continue to make progress on the project while she was gone. The problem was, I could not afford to quit my part-time job in order to do so. When I explained this situation to Jacques, he asked how much money was needed to free up the time I needed. When I mentioned the amount, he said that he would like to write a check for that amount, asking only that I repay when I would be able. That was the third dramatic way in which he helped me.

1972 was not a good year in which to be receiving a Ph.D. in American Literature. I had only one job interview, at the state college that has now become Northern Kentucky University. The interview went well and I was offered the job. Some of my Literature professors thought that such a position was not good enough for a Columbia graduate, but Jacques encouraged me to accept the offer, and I did. I have now been here for thirty five years. In 1980 Jacques delivered three lectures that were published as Three Talks by Jacques Barzun at Northern Kentucky University. That visit to my campus is the only time I have ever seen him outside of the provost’s office in Low Library. But he has remained with me in everything I have since taught and written.

One last thing. He changed my name. I had always been Bob. But somehow that never registered right to his ear. He always called me Robert. It sounded good coming from him. So I have since had one name as a writer, another as a person.

Robert K. Wallace, Regents Professor, Literature and Language, Northern Kentucky University, is the author of A Century of Music-Making: The Lives of Josef and Rosina Lhevinne (1976); Jane Austen and Mozart: Classical Equilibrium in Fiction and Music (1983) ; Emily Brontë and Beethoven: Romantic Equilibrium in Fiction and Music (1986); Melville and Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (1992); Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes (2001); Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style (2005); and They Took Their Power in Their Hands: The Making of a Women’s College Basketball Team (in progress).

The Jacques Barzun Centennial