From Information to Aspiration

As a youngster I was determined to be judged Very Smart, so I bought a used copy of an Information Please Almanac, and first encountered the name of Jacques Barzun. He was a panelist, along with Mark Van Doren, Franklin P. Adams, and others, on a radio program moderated, I believe, by Clifton Fadiman. (Information Please started in the 1930s and ended in the 1950s.)

I remember: Barzun said something outlandish, and the others ganged up on him. He was the youngest panelist, as I recall.

I encountered his name again when he, Trilling, and W. H. Auden were in charge of a very classy book club.

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At Columbia, he taught a course on the French Revolution and Romanticism. Slight, good-looking, elegant. I took the class in 1955, I think. (I was proud of attending a school where celebrities like Trilling, Gilbert Highet and Barzun taught.)

He came in, lectured in a precise, lively way, then disappeared. Once a student waylaid him: the student had to get Barzun to sign a paper.

I remember once Barzun hesitated in thinking of a word — and wound up saying something rather trite, like “enlightened.” A female student involuntarily breathed her disappointment.

A smart, outspoken student named Seymour Mandelbaum (he was in one of my other classes) once asked Barzun if the anti-religious elements of the French Revolution actually constituted a religion. Barzun coolly refuted the idea. Seymour seemed annoyed. One day Barzun came in — and before class started, beamed at Seymour. Making amends. An ingratiating gesture. Seymour seemed to ignore him. And then Barzun turned — and beamed at me! I was shocked. So, I think, was he at my response. I guess that I had kept staring at him intently in every class. (When later on I underwent psychotherapy, the therapist told me that Barzun must have become a father figure to me.)

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I wrote a paper on Wordsworth and the Romantic Revolution in English Poetry. I got an A–. Barzun’s comment on my paper was brief but laudatory. (The paper just repeated conventional ideas.) But this was the last time Barzun would teach in the College; he was becoming dean of the Columbia graduate school. And he requested copies of certain unusually good papers from that class, of which mine was one. It still makes me happy remembering that.

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In 1985 I conducted a poll for an article on puns, writing to celebrities like Edward Albee, John Ciardi, Cleveland Amory, and Barzun, asking them to rate various puns.

I mentioned in my article that a TV newscaster had objected, in the Times, to the use of “an” before the word “historian.”

Barzun had responded that “an historian” is acceptable because the “h” in “historian” is barely aspirated and the stress is on the second syllable, not the first. Barzun concluded by expressing his “sorrow to see your contributor suffering from stress because his aspirations are misplaced.”

A good line to quote in an article about puns.

Warren Boroson

The Jacques Barzun Centennial