Jacques Barzun

Teacher, Mentor, Friend

When I met Barzun I was a graduate student in French working on a thesis on Berlioz. I had steeped myself in Berlioz and the Romantic Century and devoured every other book of Barzun's I could lay my hands on. So when in 1975 I finally ventured to write to him, emboldened by having attended the exhilarating Berlioz conference held in Paris that autumn, I could truthfully confess that despite having an official adviser at Yale, I counted him as my real one. I was coming to New York for a few days; would he be willing to meet and discuss my project, perhaps in exchange for a report on the recent conference in Paris? Jacques responded in the epistolary manner I came to know well, a single-page blend of learning and wisdom, charm and wit, inviting me to visit him in his office at Scribner's. That proved the first of at most a dozen times I actually saw him over the next several decades. Mostly our friendship developed through letters, or through the exchange of articles and clippings. If Berlioz was performed in New York, I could expect a copy of the New York Times review. If something piqued Barzun's interest on a French topic, that would come, too, with a brief note attached. As for his books, I no longer needed to go looking for them. He sent me the new ones, gracefully inscribed, as they appeared, and copies of earlier ones as he found extras on his shelves.

Shortly after our meeting at Scribner's I received the handsome Knopf edition of Berlioz's Evenings with the Orchestra in Barzun's translation. In the inscription, which he wrote in French, he called me a berliozienne émérite, using the adjective in its old-fashioned sense derived from merit—much more accurate for me than today's usual equivalent, éminente, which I was not. Years later I rashly adopted Barzun's use of émérite when giving something of my own to a French friend, a literary scholar of unquestioned eminence, who chided me for branding her prematurely as emerita, the meaning now current in French as in English. To become better attuned to late twentieth-century French, one of the first things Barzun did in retirement was to take out a subscription to Le Monde (he was not charmed by the style of French he found there). With spoken French, to my knowledge, he made no such effort. Once during a conference, when we were seated with non-English-speaking French scholars at dinner, he rose to the occasion with elegance and precision but a hint of diffidence: he clearly preferred to speak in English. I need hardly add that his written French, despite the occasional obsolete phrase, remained masterly.

Another inscription I received from him illustrates his frequently self-deprecating humour. Inside the front cover of Berlioz and His Century, the abridged paperback version of his two-volume magnum opus, he had taped one of the ten-france notes then recently issued in France with Berlioz's picture engraved on it (the date, in Barzun's preferred style: 10-vii-82). Under his signature, after the customary kind words, he added a post-script alluding to the ten-france note: (The engraving on the opposite side is to give the volume a little market value!) Were I interested in market value, it is of course Barzun's name, not the banknote that would ensure it.

Already retired from Columbia when I met him, Barzun might have been expected to let go of the teacher's role he had exercised for so long. That never happened, certainly not with me, even though I graduated to first-name status upon receiving my doctorate. First names, he declared at the time, were the badge of equality; he was liberal in granting acquaintances and friends the privilege of addressing him as Jacques. Aside from its modesty, that habit signalled to me his desire to meet his interlocutors on equal footing. Whatever the objective inequalities, Jacques had the gift of raising others to his level by example, encouragement, and focused attention to their concerns, always choosing topics of common interest. The breadth of his own interests matched the breadth of his friendships. These he cultivated for intellectual pleasure, to be sure, but also for more human reasons. Despite his reputation for aloofness, I always understood him to be speaking partly for himself when he observed that Berlioz, another man of famously aloof demeanour, had a natural craving for affection. In letters, both men allowed themselves expressions of fondness that they would not in person. In conversation, which Barzun exercised with great charm and pleasure, I imagine he was likewise similar to Berlioz.

I infer another resemblance between the two from a remark of Berlioz's that, for him, the surpassing virtue is kindness. In my experience, Barzun's kindness and generosity were unfailing, unstinting especially in their gift of time. In going over drafts of my work, his comments would readily spill over his customary single page, especially when my thinking began to turn in directions radically different from his. Once I imposed on him considerably more than was proper when I asked him to read my sister's tenure dossier and write her a recommendation. Though he knew her only slightly, he graciously took on the task. It thus pained me to read a recent testimony to the effect that Barzun was mean—ungenerous, at least with money—as evidenced by a lunch at which, despite obviously superior resources, he insisted on splitting the bill. Beyond what Michael Murray's biography reveals about the Barzun family's traumatic loss of fortune, of which Jacques bore the brunt and which led to his lifelong caution with money, such behaviour with a younger male colleague (behaviour that, with a woman, his Gallic sense of gallantry would not have permitted) might well be interpreted as deference, once again, to the all-important spirit of equality. It was my impression, too, that Barzun in his later decades mellowed considerably, letting go of some of the stricter rules and restraints he had lived by as he settled into his comfortable, happy marriage with Marguerite—a marriage that, I have no doubt, contributed not a little to his extraordinary longevity. To know that they ended up having thirty full years together remains a signal comfort in grieving his loss.

Barzun taught me as much by example as by anything he said or wrote to me directly. Though he led me astray with émérite, his example usually served me well. One instance occurred on our first meeting. Almost as striking as his imposing presence at Scribner's that day was the large desk behind which he sat. Astonishingly to me, who write amidst a helter-skelter of books and papers, the desk of the man possessed of one of the world's best-stocked minds, a man unmatched, as Charles Scribner testifies in his book of memoirs, in the quality and quantity of his editorial output, lay completely bare. It never occurred to me to say anything to him on the matter, but I can imagine him remarking that a clear or at least a well-organized desk can help keep the mind itself clutter-free. In my periodic efforts to achieve something resembling a Barzun desk, I have indeed found that even relative success produces a tonic surge of clarity and purpose.

Where I most directly experienced Barzun's skill as teacher was in his role as editor, his senior position at Scribner's having been a natural extension of his work reading student essays and dissertations at Columbia. Being read by Barzun was like having my ears and eyes opened afresh to language itself. Others have said it made them feel like rank schoolboys. For me it was not such a shock, since I had girded myself by working through his Simple & Direct, that most practical and illuminating of writing guides, and by consulting his reedition of Follet's Modern American Usage. I also read and reread his essential compendium of scholarly protocol, The Modern Researcher, as it arrived in its successive editions. Barzun's hand is well in evidence in the book's advice about good writing and lecturing—and the difference between the two: one must avoid in speaking, for example, the complex, periodic style which is so convenient and precise in printed prose. (Rewriting for publication, one puts those complexities back in.) A passage from the section Speaking What One Knows bears directly on the issue of equality between parties in intellectual and social exchange. The audience likes to be guided, writes Barzun (Use still more signposts than are necessary in print), which in no way imples that it must talked down to. Audience and lecturer must be assumed equals in their concern with the subject and in their courteous attention to each other. Typical of Barzun, he adds an impatient dismissal of academic badges of attainment: The lecturer's learning or string of degrees has nothing to do with the case. In the question and answer period, he continues, the good lecturer puts the best construction on all questions, overlooking impertinence as well as incoherence—usually signs of nervousness—and giving his best thought to answering what the questioner very likely has in mind and other listeners too. Last but not least: [N]aturally the lecturer admits any errors of fact or statement that are brought to his notice.

This bow to the necessary admission of error neatly demolishes another allegation by the man of the offending luncheon bill: Barzun, he charges, never permitted his writing to be edited. Nonsense. What Barzun did not admit—any conscientious writer will sympathize—was the free hand of editors changing his carefully chosen wordings or punctuation without his assent. He regularly sought out the help of readers to catch his slips and errors, naturally retaining the freedom to accept or reject their comments. I wrote of my own experience of reading some Barzun drafts in Editing Barzun for the Barzun Centennial Website in 2007. Though daunted at first, I found myself well enough equipped by his example in reading pieces of mine. His comments were brief, pointed, sometimes humorous but always respectful, ever mindful of a writer's delicate ego and of the claims of civility, let alone friendship. Here as in other ways, he became a model for me in my dealing with my own students.

Around the time Barzun entered his second century, he let it be known that he still welcomed letters, but that he was no longer able to respond. Yet one day, somewhat over a year before his death, a letter arrived for me in his hand. It was prompted by my writing him about having undertaken, together with a colleague, an anthology of Berlioz's criticism in English, something he had called for as early as 1950 in the first edition of his biography. Opening the envelope, I found not the typed page I was accustomed to, but two pages hand-written—a bit shakily, penned in black ball point rather than his once characteristic blue ink. but lucid, recognizable, and bearing proof of the same intellect, practical sense, and sharp wit as ever.

I quote the opening words so that Berlioz Society readers may enjoy the glimpse into Berlioz's apparent role in Barzun's friendships: How pleasant to hear from you! And as usual, you broach a subject of great and immediate interest. It is in fact a subject I associate with you when thinking of my best friends, though that attachment does not depend on his being of concern to us both.

There follows a list of four numbered points (the number 3 is inadvertently repeated), all pertinent. The first will suffice to show that his teacher's instincts remained intact to the end. With my letter announcing the planned anthology, I had included a hasty draft of some introductory pages and assigned the volume a provisional title: Hector Berlioz as Critic. Here is what my great mentor, at age 104, had to say about the title: Put Hector in the recycle bin. Berlioz needs no more first name that Beethoven or Mozart, and as long as he appears with that particularly silly first name, he has not arrived. In fact, had he been born a year later, he would be Joseph (figure out why I make this affirmation). In English, hector is an ugly verb, and as a first name connotes defeat rather than the ancient world.

What an opening salvo! Cast back into student mode, I solved the parenthetical test by reflecting that Berlioz was born on December 11, 1803; a year later, on December 2, Napoleon had himself crowned emperor and Josephine queen, inspiring parents across the land to adopt Joseph and Josephine for their offspring. But the historical aside represents more than one of those colourful details Barzun sprinkled on everything he touched. It was also a diversionary tactic, softening the blow of his irritation at my use of a first name in a title where it could only detract. Indeed the whole outburst against the particularly silly name, Hector, turned my embarrassment into amusement, then into aha! Most of us in Berlioz circles hold his first name in affection, I venture to say, simply because it belongs to our Hector (that does doubly for notre Hector in French, where the English connotations Barzun points out do not obtain). Though Barzun shares our devotion, he remains ever alert, as a good teacher, writer, and editor, to the way things look and sound from the outside.

How I will miss him. Who else will take me to task so deftly, so pithily, with such unwavering kindness, when I fall into my inevitable lapses of good sense? How we will all miss his good-natured hectoring.

The Berlioz Society

The Jacques Barzun Centennial