From the Barzun File

Excerpts from the Writings of Jacques Barzun

To Jacques Barzun on His 95th Birthday

[Photo of Jacques Barzun by Mike Greenberg]
Photo by Mike Greenberg

Books by Jacques Barzun at Amazon.com

A Java applet for Jacques Barzun

Other Java applets: Carmen & Barstow & Varèse & Speech & Time & MAYA & OJW & Magen & U.S.A. & J4J

[From Dawn to Decadence] Jacques Barzun’s synthesis, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, is now available in paperback and in an abridged audio version read by Edward Herrmann. Hardcover.

The painting is The Romans of the Decadence (1847) by the French painter Thomas Couture (1815-79).

Race: A Study in Superstition, 1937, 1965
Teacher in America, 1945
“Some Notes on Créteil and French Poetry”, 1946
The House of Intellect, 1959
Classic, Romantic, and Modern, [1943] 1961
Jacques Barzun on Writing, Editing, and Publishing: Essays Explicative and Hortatory, 1971
Critical Questions, 1980
Foreword to Marcel Dupré: The Work of a Master Organist, by Michael Murray, 1985
“Toward a Fateful Serenity,” in Clifton Fadiman, ed., Living Philosophies, 1990
An Essay on French Verse—For Readers of English Poetry, 1991
Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, 1991
“Overheard at Glimmerglass (‘Famous last words’)”, in Peter Bloom, ed., Berlioz Studies, 1992
Clerihews for the Clerisy, 1992–1996
Foreward to D. G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, 1996
Contribution to Ronald B. Shwartz, ed., For the Love of Books, 1999
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 2000
“Berlioz as man and thinker” in Peter Bloom, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz
Sidelights on Opera at Glimmerglass, 2001
“The Tenth Muse”, 2001
A Jacques Barzun Reader: Selections from His Works, 2002
“What Is a School?”, 2002
Note to Albert Borowitz, Blood & Ink: An International Guide to Fact-Based Crime Literature, 2002
The Modern Researcher [1957], 6th edition, 2004

On Jacques Barzun


The Modern Researcher, with Henry F. Graff, [1st edition, 1957] 6th edition, 2004

Judgment is the historian’s form of genius, and he himself is judged by the amount of it he can muster.

Note to Blood & Ink: An International Guide to Fact-Based Crime LIterature, by Albert Borowitz

Great novels are often inartistic compared with the great works that retell great crimes.

What Is a School? and Trim the College! (Hudson Institute, American Academy for Liberal Education, and Council for Basic Education)

Everybody, I hope, would agree that a school is a place where teaching and learning go on, steadily and systematically. That is its function. Its purpose is something else: to remove ignorance. A school can do several other good things at the same time, but it has one purpose only: to remove ignorance. This distinction is important because these definitions serve as a standard by which to judge what is done and what is proposed in the name of schooling.

A Jacques Barzun Reader: Selections from His Works, edited with an introduction by Michael Murray

I’ve always been—I think any student of history almost inevitably is—a cheerful pessimist. That is, the evil of the day doesn’t eat into you and make you go around with a hangdog look and thoughts of the rope or a dose of poison. Still, nowadays the powers of synthesis, organization, reasoned order are outweighed by the number of people to handle, of difficulties to cope with, by the very size of everything that we know how to do. That’s what makes it likely that we’ll come to a jam. But reading history, one finds that there have been periods, say toward the end of the Middle Ages, the late fifteenth century, when everything looked very much as it looks now. And even though we may say that their difficulties were lesser, their mechanical powers were less too. The interesting question is whether our greater powers and our greater knowledge—and by that I don’t mean our deeper knowledge, I mean our more extensive awareness of what’s going on everywhere at once—are going to be helpful or harmful. The possible harm of knowing too much is that it excludes the possibilities that might work. You say: “Oh, we can’t do that! Look at the statistics!”

“The Tenth Muse”, Harper’s Magazine, September 2001. Reprinted in Best American Essays 2002, edited by Stephen Jay Gould and Robert Atwan

Knowledge lives by being known, not stored. Like religion, like a popular culture, it is a possession held in common as widely as possible.

Sidelights on Opera at Glimmerglass (Glimmerglass, New York: Glimmerglass Opera)

After the dreamy aria in which the stricken soliloquize comes the allegro, a kind of wake-up call. It represents vulgar common sense: “See here! Enough of that!” It suggests the collective voice, the public interest, society.

“Berlioz as man and thinker,” in The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz, edited by Peter Bloom

An artist has every right—one may even say a duty—to exhibit his productions as prominently as he can.

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present

[On Hazlitt:] It is not analysis, it is judgment encompassing its object, leaving it whole and illuminated.

Given the several ways of Modernist art, it is logical to conclude that the production of things to see and read is not a rare or special gift. It is populistically distributed to all or nearly all. For one thing, some of the genres, such as Found Art, do not require long study or much practice. For another, the unimportance of subject matter eliminates the need for psychological or other truth in the work. In other words, the demand for genius has died out. Accordingly, there have sprouted throughout the Western world a great number of museums, galleries, workshops, sidewalk shows, and government or business programs to exhibit, sell, or send abroad as propaganda the increasing mass of works. This flowering has taken place not only in capital cities but also in modest towns and villages. These new art centers have been seconded by schools, hospitals, and others sources of wall space so as to accommodate children’s art, art by the physically or mentally disabled, art by convicts, art by chimpanzees. Art proves also suitable for therapy and for tranquilizing the unruly in prisons and asylums.

The man in the street who says “Precipitation probability is twenty percent” is less alive than if he said and felt “small chance of rain.”

A failure of will, which is to say the wish without the act, is characteristic of institutions in decadence.

A self is not found but made.

Jacques Barzun on Writing, Editing, and Publishing: Essays Explicative and Hortatory

“Do I want to write—or to have written?”

Critical Questions: On Music and Letters, Culture and Biography, 1940–1980, Selected, Edited and Introduced by Bea Friedland

The editorial, the placard, and the elementary school have been [Liberalism’s] instruments, instead of the scepter, the cross, the pilgrimage, the pageant, and the churchhouse.

Ingenuity is to be shunned, for the critical task is not to solve but to see.

The critic should shut up until he is wanted.

Foreward to Marcel Dupré: The Work of a Master Organist, by Michael Murray

Hardly any thought-cliché is more widespread and more mistaken than the belief that music is an international language.

“Toward a Fateful Serenity,” in Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, edited by Clifton Fadiman

The outbreak of war in August 1914 and the nightmare that ensued put an end to all innocent joys and assumptions. The word Never took on dreadful force. News of death in every message or greeting, knowledge that cousins, uncles, friends, teachers, and figures known by repute would not be seen again; encounters at home and in the street or schoolyard with the maimed, shell-shocked, or gassed, caused a permanent muting of the spirit. This emotional darkness in daylight was punctuated by the hysterical outbursts of suddenly grief-stricken women and the belief of some in “communications from the dead” that sounded grimly absurd even to a child.

Throughout, poisoning all other sentiments, was the continual outpouring of public hatred. By the age of ten—as I was later told—my words and attitudes betrayed suicidal thoughts; it appeared that I was “ashamed” to be still alive. Steps were taken: before the end of the school term in 1918 I was bundled off to the seashore, away from “events,” including the bombardment of Paris by “Big Bertha” [a name given to various German howitzers and cannon. See Big Guns of the Great War.] and the scurrying to cellars during air raids.

With beach life and surrender to a great lassitude, calm slowly returned, helped out by reading adventure stories. But it was not Gulliver or Robinson Crusoe alone who restored the will to life; it was also Hamlet. I had taken him off the shelf in Paris, not in secret but unnoticed, and I brought him away with me. The opening scene promised a good ghost story.

As I read on, I discovered that the rotten state of Denmark was the state that had overtaken my world: hatred, suspicion (spies were seen everywhere), murderous fury, unending qui vive. It contradicted all the assurances of the catechism. But what could be reinvigorating about Hamlet? Well, to begin with, his skill in warding off menaces from all sides; he was the equal of Crusoe in survival. And especially comforting was his ability to overcome his doubts in the terrible murkiness of his situation. His death at the end was a fluke, not a failure; Fortinbras said what a good king he would have made “had he been put on.”

Thus were the trials of my young life made coherent in a view of Hamlet I have never found reason to alter….

By a fortunate accident…I had a great-grandmother, born in 1830, who talked to me of the world in her young days in such a way that her memories became part of my imaginative life. Enchanting vistas of the nineteenth century, and tragic ones also, shone for me with the light of present fact. I trace to this privilege my choicest pleasures and clearest convictions, my conception of existence, and not solely my life’s work.

An Essay on French Verse—For Readers of English Poetry

No two languages are closer and farther apart than English and French.

[The mute e] ends many English words in Chaucer, where it must be pronounced if his lines are to scan. Soon after his death English pronunciation changed, the e was dropped, and for three centuries his work was neglected as unmetrical doggerel.

Poetry is not constant; there are poetries just as there are musics.

The evidence is that verse harmony has nothing to do with any musical gift except the sense of rhythm.

The magic, color, music of words said to be onomatopoetic in poetry is due primarily to their meaning.

My great-grandmother, who was born in 1830 and took a particular interest in my education, had a poor opinion of the way my classmates and I pronounced the language. The pronoun ils with the l sounded, the word papillon ending in -yon instead of -ilion, the city of Bruxelles as if x shoud be heard and not ss—these and other horrors made her shake her head. Having been reared before the days of television and hands-off parents, she spoke like the educated people of the generation before hers, namely that of the early 1800s. As a result, I learned from her how Lamartine and Musset ought to sound—which liasons to make or omit, the values of h, the three different ways of handling double l, the duty of sounding two m’s in immédiat but only one in immeuble, and what final or median consonants to eliminate—fils pronounced fi, assomption, assontion, monsieur not with muh but with mo, and much else. It took some effort to please her and remember not to carry these reformed utterings back to school, where they would be reproved by the teachers and ridiculed by the fellows. But the experience taught me that the melody I thought I heard in the poem was to an unknown extent the effect of the pronunciation of my time.

Certain verses generate sensuous harmony without affording any uniform sensory experience. When pronunciation changes in the history of the language, or by individual vagaries, the relation among the sounds appears to change also in some compensating way, doubtless influenced by meaning. A foreigner’s distortion goes with his general distorted hearing of the language, modified by his understanding of it; and when the native poet reading his own work dims his own music, it still rings as clear in his mind as when he composed it.

[Quoting Gide:] “Hugo, by no means stupid as he is often called, preferred a commonplace emotion or idea, that he might devote himself entirely to the physical pleasure of expressing it, of letting it develop and spread forth.”

Judgments…in these delicate matters must be weighed, not counted.

The Symbolists, although they took Mallarmé for a deep metaphysician, had little more than faith in art itself. Its possibility, its beauty, seemed to prove that not everything was useful and material.

This unfair estimate [of Verlaine] is due to a hidden tendency in modern judgments of poetry—indeed of art in general: Verlaine offers no emphatic message. The truth is that for all the talk of pure poetry and the contemplation of beauty, modern literature is read and valued to the degree that it criticizes modern life.

The whole modern movement in literature is grounded on dissatisfaction with words.

If the material of poetry is free of internal logic as well as internal representation, and verbal expression is free of grammar and semantics, what are the chances that a piece of writing that takes advantage of every latitude will arouse a reader’s interest and evoke anything?

The passion for freedom breeds the rage for order.

In the arts public burial is not always definitive. There is always a chance that the corpse will revive as a young man.

Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning

All new machinery is exciting when new; it soon loses its charm, for the mechanical does not stimulate thought, and as a wise man said: “Most important things aren’t exciting. Most exciting things aren’t important. Not every problem has a good solution.”

So far, all the attempts at mechanization [in schools] have failed—failed, that is, for the purposes of schooling. Industrial sales alone have benefited. Let us wish well to IBM and Macintosh and all their rivals, but urge that they keep out of the classroom. What goes on there should remain a live show.

Where is the individual in a numerical score?

Ethics must be seen to be believed.

There is no cruder mode of judging than that which asks: Is it new?

Trees may be splendid symbols of long life, and ship fragments valuable mementoes of the past, but neither are “imbued with history.” Only human beings are, by being creatures possessed of memory and of the capacity to reflect upon it.

The student who reads history will unconsciously develop what is the highest value of history: judgment in worldly affairs. This is a permanent good, not because “history repeats”—we can never exactly match past and present situations—but because the “tendency of things” shows an amazing uniformity within any given civilization. As the great historian Burckhardt said of historical knowledge, it is not “to make us more clever the next time, but wiser for all time.”

Teaching is not the application of a system, it is an exercise in perpetual discretion.

How is “real book” defined? Quite simply: it is a book one wants to reread.

But why, after all, learn to read differently by tackling the classics? The answer is simple: in order to live in a wider world. Wider than what? Wider than the one that comes through the routine of our material lives and through the paper and the factual magazines—Psychology Today, House and Garden, Sports Illustrated; wider also than friends’ and neighbors’ plans and gossip; wider especially than one’s business or profession. For nothing is more narrowing than one’s own shop, and it grows ever more so as one bends the mind and energies to succeed. This is particularly true today, when each profession has become a cluster of specialties continually subdividing. A lawyer is not a jurist, he is a tax lawyer, or a dab at trusts and estates. The work itself is a struggle with a mass of jargon, conventions, and numbers that have no meaning outside the specialty. The whole modern world moves among systems and abstractions superimposed on reality, a vast make-believe, though its results are real enough in one’s life if one does not know and follow these ever-shifting rules of the game.

…another illusion bred by university research, the idea of the obsolete, the apparent elimination of the past by the future, the belief propagated by science and industry that later is better, even when later has not yet come about and is only a prophecy by enthusiasts with something to sell.

But the reward of reading with a humanistic eye is not in doubt: it is pleasure, renewable at will. That pleasure is the ultimate use of the classics. All the great judges of human existence have said so, from Milton who called reading “conversation with the master spirits” to Virginia Woolf, who imagined the Almighty saying to St. Peter about some newcomers to heaven: “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them…They have loved reading.” I can only add one thing: it is always time to stop repeating the wise sayings and begin to believe them.

For my part, when I speak at a commencement, I prefer to say a few words not about what the newly hatched might do for the world but what they might do for themselves, as individuals. The speech goes something like this:

As you are now, the world does not depend on you; it is not aware of your existence; it will acknowledge it slowly, perhaps in keeping with your professional efforts, perhaps not. These efforts are unquestionably your main business, now that you have taken such pains to be knowledgeable and proficient. But these very pains, this professional preparation, and the striving to establish yourselves which comes next, are all activities that narrow the mind and stifle the spirit….

Alone though [educated persons] may be much of the time, they are not so much to be pitied as the sociable creatures who must have “people around” or a movie to go to. For the educated person has appropriated so much of other men’s minds that he can live on his store like the camel on his reservoir. Everything can become grist to his mill, including his own misery—if he is miserable —for by association with what he knows, everything he enjoys or endures has echoes and meanings and suggestions ad infinitum. This is in fact the test and use of a human being’s education, that he finds pleasure in the exercise of his mind.

“Overheard at Glimmerglass (‘Famous last words’)”, Berlioz Studies, edited by Peter Bloom

VAN DUSEN: …Let’s have a little humility. I can’t forget the centuries that thought Shakespeare no artist and Ben Jonson a great one….

Foreward to The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, by D. G. Myers

We have here a panorama—a pageant, rather—of the American will-to-art.

Contribution to For the Love of Books: 115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most, edited by Ronald B. Shwartz

As I try to recall a book that had an awakening effect on my mind when young, more than one springs up in memory. In the Paris Lycée it was the epoch-making autobiography, René Descartes’ Discourse on Method. In Columbia College it was Alfred North Whitehead’s radically different Science in the Modern World. But the work that soon after affected me like a revelation, that churned up and recast all my notions about life and the mind, thought and feeling, science and the art of writing, was William James’ Principles of Psychology.

Clerihews for the Clerisy

Peter Pears
Needn’t give himself airs:
He gets them written
By Benjamin Britten.

Wise old Lao-Tse
Knew he knew The Way.
Had it been wiser to walk with the Buddha,
He woudda.

Thomas Hobbes
Wrote: “Man robs,
Kills, and misbehaves ad libitum,
And only I know how to inhibit him.”

Richard the Lion-Hearted,
Having departed
On a foolish crusade,
Couldn’t get home without foreign aid.

Henry Gray
Knew his Anatomy had come to stay:
Human bones’s shapes and quota
Don’t alter one iota.

Agatha Christie
Is no doubt twisty,
But her plots are notably nifty
And there are more than fifty.

Classic, Romantic, and Modern

The total repudiation of Art by our leading men coincides with the frittering away of high art through vulgarization. What can this convergence mean except that the act of abolition will not be nullified by the persistence of old objects in the common memory? And if we are assured of this, then we may suppose the birth of a new consciousness neither far off nor unwelcome. Whatever the time, we have every reason now for believing our artists when they tell us that Art is dead. They are, as always, the best witnesses to our present position; we must echo them and defend them, just as we must second and encourage the acculturation of the eager newcomers to Art. We must repeat after each, but not inconsistently: “Art is dead, long live the arts!”

The House of Intellect

The House of Intellect today numbers few great figures and virtually no grand old men. Past achievements do not secure anyone a place, and this not because of the multitude of new achievements, but because to consider a reputation established would be to confer status, privilege. A master in his old age must therefore continue to ‘be news’ or go without public attention. Picasso by political murals, Frank Lloyd Wright by lectures on public affairs, can hold their places in the public mind. But Mencken, who was retired and stricken, received on his last birthday exactly thirty messages of congratulation. Comes the obituary—the ultimate news—and the account is closed. Next!

I once had occasion to tell a group of graduate students that any of them would be lucky to achieve the fifth or sixth rank among historians. The remark was prompted by their dissatisfaction with all they knew: Gibbon was a bore, Macaulay a stuffed shirt, Hegel and Michelet were fools, Carlyle and Buckle frauds—this from students who could not write ten pages of readable and properly documented narrative. Pointing out that even second- and third-rate men, such as Milman, Bancroft, or Grote, were the superiors of these students’ own instructors, who were by definition superior to the students themselves, was a sobering thought quite foreign to their experience.

“Some Notes on Créteil and French Poetry,” New Directions, v9, 1946.

If it is conceded that the changing sensibility of the poet does perpetually reshape the form and technique of poetry, and even the conception of what poetry is for, then the radical “proposition” embodied by [H. M.] Barzun in L’Orphéide appears both thoroughgoing and, by now, intelligible. We have got used to many things done upon the body of language since 1914; but at that time the principle of simultaneity in poetry necessarily seemed cataclysmic. For it brought into question again the basis of all poetic techniques since Lessing’s Laokoon. The western world had agreed that poetry was to be read the way it was written—one word after another. All discussions of “technique” dealt with “lines.” “This is a good line; that is a bad line.” A poet is known by his lines, in much the same way that a volume of poems is known by the irregular aspect of the right-hand margin. It is even believed by the innocent that Homer was a writer and that the Greek dramas originally sounded very much like the girls’ school commencements which they now adorn.

But if the scribe tradition is rejected and instead of lines and books the poet should begin with sounds and sensations, he would logically arrive at the view that his page was simply a convenient portion of space in which to organize the symbols for what he hears. Space relations would indicate time relations as well—would create a larger syntax for his use—and he might them give himself and others the feeling that he was composing a world in motion instead of merely “extending remarks” like a Congressman.

Teacher in America

Imagine a generation of young men who did not think they could govern better than their fathers, who did not want to revolutionize the world with new inventions or make T. S. Eliot’s laurels fade! If they do not believe they can do this, who will tell them?

As long as we cannot prophesy who will turn out a winner, we have no right to question initiative and self-dedication.

Race: A Study in Superstition

The Swastika is mistakenly thought to be an emblem of particularly Eastern or Aryan origin. It is found in the ideography of many different tribes, and children left to themselves with paper and pencil arrive at it readily when decorating squares. (Fylfot, gammadion, Encycl. Brit. 14th ed., VII, 260 a.)

On Jacques Barzun:

As a very young preschool boy, I recall Barzun coming to Harrisburg from France with his parents, the Henri Martin-Barzuns. His father even then was recognized as a great educator and author in France, and his name is still treasured there. They met my parents and somehow Mrs. Barzun and my mother discovered they were distantly related, which led to their living with us for some time, then moving to another place, but leaving Jacques to remain with us while he attend Harrisburg schools. At Tech High with my brother Harold, he completed the three years in two, while becoming valedictorian. I still have a photo of him with my brother.—Jack Gross, Letter to the Harrisburg Patriot News, Aug. 2, 2003

[In the 1930s at Columbia College] I had Barzun and Trilling as instructors, then at the beginning of what was already clear would be great careers, though they were only a few years older than we…. [Barzun] was a towering charismatic figure, who aroused the kind of fierce loyalties that the medieval masters must have, when their students, in their theological disputations, occasionally left a cadaver on the ground on dispersing. (Our disputes were over ideology, the modern theology).—H. L. Jacobson, in Wesley First, ed., University on the Heights, 1969, pp. 175–176.

My long pupilship with Jacques Barzun began [in 1935?] when I was a sophomore at Columbia College and he was an instructor teaching a course entitled “The Historical Background of English Literature.” We students were asked to read a long series of excerpts from notable authors, together with Trevelyan’s History of England, but the class discussions took an unexpected turn. At the first meeting, as I remember it, Mr. Barzun introduced Byron’s irregular sonnet beginning “She walks in beauty like the night” to illustrate the method of relating a literary work to the historical setting in which it was produced. The class flung itself upon this example with avidity and, with the instructor’s encouragement, found so much to consider in the piece that its eighteen lines and their historical background remained our topic for most of the term. The lesson I still retain from that course is that the close, patient and unhurried reading of a single text is more profitable than the hasty reading of many.—Theodore Caplow, in Dora B. Weiner and William R. Keylor, eds., From Parnassus: Essays in Honor of Jacques Barzun, 1976, p. 66.

I got into Columbia College in 1943 and wanted to be a doctor like my father, my two grandfathers, and my four great-grandfathers—I had no choice, but I was helped by my remarkable incompetence in chemistry and physics, and by the fact that I had two very different but each very wonderful teachers: Jacques Barzun, the European cultural historian, and Lionel Trilling, the literary scholar. I always like to say that I had Lionel Trilling before he was Lionel Trilling. He was then an assistant professor, not yet the celebrated, great man, but I must say it was an absolutely overwhelming experience to have been in Lionel Trilling’s class on romantic poetry in which I distinguished myself mostly by being silent and overawed. To give up Barzun and Trilling for chemistry was just too much. It wasn’t an easy decision. I hesitated and in fact consulted Barzun, who knew I was thinking of switching. Barzun said, “Marry medicine and keep history as your lifelong mistress.” When I went back to him a second time—I mention that because it’s pedagogically interesting—two or three months later, I said, “I can’t get it out of my system,” and he said “Let me ask a question: What do you want to do?” and I said “I want to teach” and he said, “I know the headmaster of the Lawrenceville School [a private school in New Jersey] very well, would you want to teach there?” I said “Sure. That would be very nice.” And he, “I think you’d make a good historian.” He wanted to make it clear to me that I shouldn’t think that I could go into college-level teaching or anything like that. I believe the test, which to him was intuitive, was to ask, “Would you be satisfied teaching history in high school, albeit a special high school?” And since that seemed perfectly reasonable to me, that was that.—Fritz Stern, “A Conversation with Fritz Stern”, GHI [German Historical Institute] Bulletin.

In [my junior year] I enrolled in young Jacques Barzun’s course in 19th-century intellectual history. Barzun simply overwhelmed his few students with the range of the subject and the brilliance of his exploration of it. At work on his biography of Hector Berlioz, Barzun injected much musical material into his course. While I shared with my classmates the exciting experience that this course turned out to be, I drew one rather personal conclusion from it: intellectual history was a field in which my two principal extra-academic interests—music and politics—could be studied not in their usual isolation, but in their relationship under the ordinance of time.—Carl E. Schorske, Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism, 1998, p. 20.

Barzun gets inside the soul of [baseball] in a way perhaps that no native could, since we are freighted with our collective knowledge of the game, blinded by the normalcy of the game around us.—Tim Wiles, Baseball Hall of Fame, “Letters in the Dirt,” 54

No picture of him I have seen, whether rendered by a photographer or by an artist, captures either his physical or his inner qualities. Obvious to the mere observer or the frightened student were his aristocratic way of carrying himself, suggesting arrogance, his impeccable clothes, his neat hair, his studious, exact, but never hesitant speech, his formidable intelligence. I have known history students tempted for the first time in their lives to plagiarize a paper because they could not imagine themselves writing anything that would not affront his critical eye, let alone satisfy him. This was the outer Barzun…. As one came somewhat to know the inner Barzun, nothing of the first, terrifying impression was exactly transfigured. Only now one knew that beneath that stiff exterior he was capable of kindness, attention to others, courtesy of a sort only described by the worn phrase “old-fashioned,” and consideration beyond expectation.—Carolyn G. Heilbrun, When Men Were the Only Models We Had: My Teachers Barzun, Fadiman, Trilling, 2002, pp. 116–117.

Jacques gives the impression of possessing that rarest of qualities, serenity. One senses in him a profound self-containment and what he himself has described as the “impersonal calm” of intellect. His presence reassures as it radiates this strength. He does not enter the room like a whirlwind; the excitement comes when he begins to talk. For Jacques Barzun is a marvelous talker, in private as well as in public; in company he talks like a character from a novel by Peacock or Meredith. His tone, in speaking and in writing, is that of a sage, never that of a prophet. Barzun is not melancholic: it is the bright light of the soul, not its dark night, that concerns him. There is no mysticism in his make-up (or at least I have not discerned any in forty-five years). All is reason, which he seems confident will prevail. He is neither rebellious against, nor acquiescent in, the folly he knows surrounds him. But, self-possessed and evidently confident, he seems to know, not that he can conquer folly, but that he can cope with it.—Richard Franko Goldman, “Portrait: Jacques Barzun,” The American Scholar, Volume 42, No. 1 (Winter 1972–73), p. 20.

He is the best editor I have ever seen—and the most efficient. He works steadily, making deft intermarginal notes that are right on target. I have not written anything in the last dozen years that Jacques didn’t improve by these deft touches. I studied them to see if I could do the same for myself, but I never could. He has helped ever so many writers in that same way, and none that he has helped could ever understand the mystery of Jacques’s ability to find the mot juste or whatever was required to clarify or simplify. He is a bewildering virtuoso…. Working with him was like working with Goethe or somebody of that order. It’s a chance that comes once in a lifetime. —Charles Scribner, Jr., In the Company of Writers: A Life in Publishing, 1990, pp. 156–157.

The value of historical studies has never been better expressed to my knowledge than by the American historian of culture, Jacques Barzun, in an address entitled “History Is Past and Present Life,” delivered in 1984 [and reprinted in Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, 1991].—Max Beloff, An Historian in the Twentieth Century: Chapters in Intellectual Autobiography, 1992

For more than seven decades, Jacques Barzun has been an influential voice in American life. As a professor, writer, and historian, he has helped to shape our culture, enlighten minds, and enrich lives. His scholarship offers eloquent wisdom and insightful commentary that stimulates thought and serves as a call to undertake great causes. The United States honors this intellectual for his achievements in educating and inspiring people in our country and around the world.—President George W. Bush, citation accompanying the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to Jacques Barzun on 23 July 2003.

A View from Sydney, 2002

A View from a Blog, 2004–2005

A Brace of Letters by Jacques Barzun

Barzun 100

Selected by Leo Wong hello@albany.net