Happy Birthday, Jacques Barzun

It was about 1988 or ’89, I think, when I attended my first meeting of the Britannica Board of Editors, on which Barzun long served. It was held that year at the Wye Plantation in Maryland. The evening before the formal session began there was an informal cocktail hour, during which I hung well back and watched as the mostly old friends and acquaintances greeted one another and caught up on news and gossip in the accepted cocktail-hour manner. At some point I became aware of a tall man of quite different mien. He had not been in the room earlier; as I was to learn, he was always late to these meetings, a fact usually attributed to his insistence on traveling by train rather than airplane.

When I say he was tall I mean not simply that his height as measured in inches exceeded that of others in the room, but that he stood to his full height, whatever it might have been, and quite visibly gave body to the very idea of uprightness. His lean face, with a tall forehead from which his hair was brushed straight back, was rather what I had imagined a good aristocrat’s might be – not stern or severe but reserved; not complacent but composed; not supercilious but observant and tolerant. In all, a figure conveying the strongest sense of austere self-possession.

“Who is that?” I asked my mentor at this affair.

“That’s Jacques,” he said simply.

Ah, Barzun. I knew the name, of course, and had at least some dim sense of why I should know it. One of the Columbia group out of which so much of what Britannica had done and how it had done it had grown. Mortimer Adler was in the room, along with Clifton Fadiman and – a second-generation representative – Charles Van Doren.

I squinted at Barzun’s brown suit, which despite an inexpert eye I suspected was of superior cut. What was that?

“That thin red line on his lapel – at the buttonhole. What is it?”

“That?” he echoed, looking at me with what seemed to be a touch of pity; “That’s the Legion of Honor.”

Whatever bit of crest I had permitted myself for having been invited to this gathering of genuine adults promptly fell and remained prostrate. Or, as I might have thought a decade later, d’oh!

It is not for me to comment on Jacques Barzun’s scholarship or his importance to Columbia. For Britannica in my time he was first among equals in keeping us to the highest standards of scholarly and cultural responsibility. Not that we always succeeded. One of his more pointed, not to say acerbic, essays was prompted by his experience with Britannica editors, though he was kind enough not to say so explicitly.

Barzun had been prevailed upon to contribute an article on European culture in the period from the French Revolution until World War I. It ran to some 15,000 words. I don’t know which editor handled it, but he or she must have had a remarkably poor sense of literary style, for the manuscript was returned to the author for approval of enough niggling, tin-eared, and outright erroneous changes to evoke an essay titled “Behind the Blue Pencil – Censorship or Creeping Creativity?” The essay appeared in The American Scholar in 1985 and was included in Barzun’s 1986 book On Writing, Editing, and Publishing, and it is now used widely in courses in writing and editing.

Being a bad example is, I suppose, service of a kind. But being a good example is better, and the example set by Barzun’s prose style is almost unattainably good. Like the man, so the style: No obfuscating jargon, no exhibitionistic sesquipedalianism, none of the affectations of less confident scholarship mar his lines. To read him is to be reminded how shockingly bad is so much of what passes for discourse in the humanities today. But that is no reason to read him. The reason is that he teaches in the great sense of the word, so that we come away not only with our understanding deepened but marveling at how he has made learning pleasurable.

Robert McHenry is a former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica and author of How to Know. This article originally appeared in the Britannica Blog and is used with the permission of Mr. McHenry and the Encyclopædia Britannica

The Jacques Barzun Centennial