The Truth About Jacques Barzun

Part One


Although I write this on Nov. First. I’m dating this Nov 5 because that’s my birthday (83). I’m probably one of Mr. Barzun’s oldest students still alive, and I daresay I started learning from him probably before anyone on this list: in the early 1940s when I’d listen to him and Mark Van Doren on CBS in Boston, WEEI: Invitation to Learning. I was born on Calvin Coolidge’s Presidential election day, and Cole Porter included Coolidge in his lyrics for “You’re The Top”: You’re an Arrow collar, you’re a Coolidge dollar! Even as late as the early 40s, when I was in high school (Boston Latin), postcards were still a penny. And for a penny postcard, you could write CBS and they’d send you a handsome brochure scheduling half-hour radio shows each week on the likes of The Brothers Karamazov, Hamlet, Baudelaire, Proust, and Gide. I’d read to prepare for a scheduled program and Voilà! that week Jacques Barzun and Mark Van Doren (and a 3rd guy whose name I no longer remember) would discuss the work. No talking down. Just like in a seminar. All for a penny postcard. And that would make it over 65 years ago and Mr.Barzun, Bless Him, is still alive & still teaching.

Right after the war (WWII, the Big One), Mr. Barzun gave a series of Lowell Lectures at the Boston Public Library, & I sure as hell was there. (Just like on the radio: It was all free.)

Later, in the very late 40s, I had him in a 300 student + graduate history class at Columbia. (If you hadn’t been registered, as I was, you could still attend. In those blissful days, before IDs, if you weren’t registered, you could just walk in, off the streets, and listen.) As I recall, it was in the lower basement of some building at Columbia, where the entrance and exit was thru a series of underground tunnels that only the cognoscenti knew how to navigate. I found fault with him at the time. Columbia had a system of two bells ending a class: a ring about two minutes to go, then a second ring signifying the end of the class. At the first bell, he’d start to pack up his lecture notes and books. At the second, he’d dash out into a tunnel and disappear, to avoid students asking questions after the class. At the time, I didn’t think that was cordial until I became a professor myself and wished (in vain) that my school had that two-bell system and a convenient tunnel to disappear into.

Finally, of course, after graduating from Kenyon College, I had him, along with Mr.Trilling, for that wondrous graduate Seminar!

I tell my students who may or may not like me (I still teach full time): Blame My Teachers, my professors. I’m their product: John Crowe Ransom, Eric Bentley, William Empson, Ernest Simmons, Allen Tate, Delmore Schwartz, Philip Rahv, Lionel Trilling and — Jacques Barzun! And when I say Barzun, I’m happy to add: And he’s still alive!!

Part Two

Although it should go without saying, I say this anyway, lest it be unsaid in Jacques Barzun’s Centennial, since some readers may be unaware and should be aware. If I learned nothing else in the famous, wondrous Barzun-Trilling seminar, it was to bring up subjects that others might not. And so:

Jacques Barzun is a staunch cultural, academic conservative. He is, as I believe, a founder or prominent trustee of the “right-wing” National Association of Scholars (NAS) and certainly a founder or prominent trustee of ACTA, of which Lynne Cheney was Chairwoman and Director before she became an emerita to become Second Lady and counsellor to the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney.

Ergo: Viva Barzun! Hear, hear!

Since Herb London, for one, is a member of our Centennial group, and my name on the list appears right after Norman Podhoretz, perhaps they might care to comment.

Ted Price teaches English at Montclair State University.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial