Remarkably, we met Jacques Barzun on only one occasion, and then only for a minute or two. But that brief encounter unexpectedly led in time to a friendship in letters that has immeasurably enriched our personal and professional lives. It was nearly two decades ago, on January 25, 1988, at a lecture that Jacques (“Mr. Barzun” to us then) gave at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. We were drawn to the lecture — entitled “What Are Critics Good For?” (the Y library has an audiotape for interested auditors) — because we had so valued an earlier essay by him on the subject of criticism (“A Little Matter of Sense,” published in the New York Times Book Review the previous year) that we were hoping to reprint it in Aristos, then a little six-page journal of modest circulation. Among the idiosyncratic observations that had appealed to us was: “Surely the test of a critic is that he does not need another critic to explain him.”
Though we had then read little else by him, we knew enough about Jacques Barzun and his work to feel more than a little in awe. Nonetheless, in the Q&A period one of us was bold enough to ask if he were familiar with Ayn Rand’s collected essays on the arts and esthetics, The Romantic Manifesto, since his remarks seemed compatible in some major respects with her ideas, which largely inform our own editorial philosophy. Not long before, as it happens, we had asked the same question (for different reasons) in a similar setting, and the speaker — a New York writer and editor of some reputation — had replied in the negative in a manner so dismissive that it prompted derisive laughter in many audience members, who apparently shared his low opinion of Rand. As anyone who knows Jacques will not be surprised to hear, however, his response to our query was quite different. He simply replied no in a matter-of-fact tone, without a hint of condescension, and then added with genuine curiosity: “Should I be?”
Following the lecture, an informal reception was held in a room adjoining the lecture hall, into which thronged a crowd of well-wishers and admirers. We gladly seized the opportunity to pay our respects and briefly follow up on our question to him. After not so patiently awaiting our turn, we introduced ourselves and told him that we greatly appreciated what he had to say on the subject of contemporary art criticism, so much so that we had written to the Times requesting permission to reprint “A Little Matter of Sense” in Aristos. He thanked us for our interest, and we again mentioned Rand’s Romantic Manifesto, suggesting that he might find much he would agree with there, and that we would greatly value his thoughts on it. He immediately reached into his pocket for a small notepad and pen, and was about to write down the book’s title. Whereupon we asked him to give us the pleasure of sending him a copy.
Two weeks later we sent Rand’s book, along with a binder of back issues of Aristos (then in its sixth year of somewhat irregular publication). Jacques’s acknowledgment was brief, as he was about to leave for a month of lecturing out of town. Beginning with the customary formal salutation and ending with “Yours sincerely, Jacques Barzun,” it included (as would many a later missive) a suggestion for further reading: since we wished to know more about his views on art, esthetics, and contemporary culture, we might look up The Use and Abuse of Art, which we subsequently did.
A few months after, we sent him our issue containing “A Little Matter of Sense” — along with the preceding issue of Aristos, which had featured “The Child as Poet: An Insidious and Injurious Myth,” an appreciative review of a book critiquing how poetry is taught to children. To our surprise and delight, Jacques wrote to comment, generally praising the review but objecting to the definition of poetry that had been offered. We published his letter, along with those from other readers, in a subsequent issue, and offered a brief argument in response (see links on the page devoted to him on the Aristos website).
So began an exchange of views and information, often in the form of handwritten notes, sometimes with appended clippings and offprints, that has continued over two decades (see brief excerpts included on our Barzun page). How, we have often wondered, did he manage to give two obscure contrarian toilers in intellectual fields so much interest and thoughtful attention, when he continued to be so prolific in his own work and — as we suspected (and has since been confirmed by these centenary tributes) — there were undoubtedly countless others who were also the beneficiaries of his generosity?
The moment we most treasure in that long correspondence came when he wrote to say he had read our book — What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand — a project he had generously encouraged us in since its earliest incarnation as an introduction to the subject, serialized in Aristos in 1991 and 1992. The book at last saw the light of day in June 2000, around the very time that From Dawn to Decadence was published. In August he wrote: “At last I have found enough uninterrupted time to read What Art Is from end to end [he later wrote that he had “reread a large part” of it], and I report my enthusiastic appreciation and enjoyment. . . .” What moved us even more than those words of praise, however, was the salutation, “Dear Friends,” and for the first time the closing “Yours, Jacques.”
Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi are co-editors of Aristos, an online review of the arts.