[24 July 2002]
If the recent publication of From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000) is any indication, Jacques Barzun is enjoying an unusual fertility in his autumn years, which makes the weighty retrospective, A Jacques Barzun Reader, seem mildly preemptive. Still, Michael Murray has assembled an impressive collection of essays, spanning seventy-five years and illustrating both the range and habits of Barzun’s intellectual life. Overall, the book delivers the sense of a guy who reads with his dress shoes on; Barzun’s diffuse brand of humanism is positively old-school, a quality we admire in athletes, less so in intellectuals. But Barzun understands the fickle nature of all literary reputations (see the essay on Shakespeare), and whatever his limitations, it’s nice to think that his earnestly inquisitive nature and his unwavering belief in “The Centrality of Reading” will always be in style.
Perhaps anticipating the tastes of the marketplace, Murray tries to sell Barzun as a humorist and devotee of pop culture. To that end, he includes “Myths for Materialists,” which satirizes the advertising age of 1947 by posing as an archeological discovery in the year 1999. He also includes Barzun’s clerihews, a poetic form that seems a hybrid of haiku and limerick (the funniest thing about them is how unfunny they are), and a set of essays on Barzun’s fondness for crime fiction. Excepting a short essay on baseball, that’s as low as Barzun’s brow sinks; his interests, as evidenced by A Reader, are largely august, and it’s there that he’s at his best.
A self-described pragmatist, Barzun essentially founded cultural criticism as a discipline: a mode of historiography with hazy boundaries and a strong contextual bias. In the surprisingly stiff-lipped obituary for Lionel Trilling, a long-time friend and fellow Columbia Lion, Barzun sums up his method: “I was trying to compress great batches of fact and opinion into descriptions and conclusions that the reader of history could grasp and remember and make part of his stock of prudence or wisdom.” As the book makes clear, Barzun, with an assist from Murray, is a man who understands himself. He weighs in on science and politics, academic matters and all the fine arts, offering exactly the economy of thought and expression he advertises. As a result, the selected essays read as eighty short sips, distilling a superficial, if frequently satisfying, clarity from what must be chaotic masses of information. This is history’s Beaujolais.
Such an approach has several inherent dangers; one is simplification, another is a self-aggrandizing revisionism. On both counts, Barzun manages to escape reproach. The ancient Greeks used the term ethos to denote a writer’s (or orator’s ) character, and with Barzun, ethos might be a primary virtue. His prose conveys the texture of deliberate and respectful mind, suggesting he’s the kind of guy who always deals from the top of the deck. What’s more, it’s hard to quibble with a “broader view” that includes: “we still hunt for solutions already found, we stumble over mental hurdles already removed, we rediscover naively and painfully.” Elsewhere, he’s equally solemn; Goethe’s Faust leads him to describe “the situation of modern civilized man, whose increasing knowledge makes him more and more self-critical, anxious, beset by doubts, and hence more and more an alien in the natural world that is his only home.”
As a comprehensive anthology, A Reader has wired into its DNA the tendency to deflect attention from the subject at hand in order to illuminate by refraction the face of the writer. In the many sketches of historical figures (of varying celebrity, among them the writer Dorothy Sayers and the physician to famous Lake District poets, Thomas Beddoes), we get glimpses of Barzun: on James Agate, for example, “He has a passion for saving from oblivion all things curious or great, and he does this with a scholarly skill free from antiquarianism.” Or, in the same essay, we might triple-jump from Agate to Barzun to Murray, “an unceremonious master of ceremonies, who takes care not to bore his reader-guest by too long a course on any one subject.”
Ultimately, the portrait that emerges reveals several contradictory impulses. Passionate about Hamlet, Barzun sometimes comes off as a latter-day Polonius, as in the collection’s first essay: “pity (or compassion as it has been renamed) is a dangerous emotion: it easily turns condescending and self-righteous. Therefore act quickly to remove pity’s cause and thereby minister also to your own spiritual health.” In his dogged pursuit of incisive generalities, he can also defend the most myopic enterprises; of his tenure as Columbia University’s Dean of Faculties, he emphasizes his efforts to streamline departmental paperwork, facilitating the free flow of bureaucracy. On biography, he laments the prevailing methodological blindness—“Going from peak to peak, it does not explore the valleys where the quiet work is done”—and yet he has it in him to thunder, as he does in “Museum Piece 1967,” sounding off against the “common anesthesia” of an overstimulated culture. And despite his staunch pragmatism, he often speaks of the Zeitgeist as if it were a filling station, as plainly visible as the corner Amoco.
Amid the intellectual scattershot, Barzun seems to return most frequently to the question of literary style. An incredibly prolific writer, he fittingly authored a style manual entitled Simple and Direct, which pretty much says it all. He invests his faith in the transparency of language—“of that excellent kind which sounds like a man speaking”—and sometimes, despite his contempt for New Criticism, seems to buy into myths of literary organicism. It’s likely such tastes have always been rear-guard, if never quite growing obsolete. His own prose he peppers with genial “nows” and homespun metaphors, “the highbrow’s culture is [. . .] all butter and no bread,” surprisingly American (according to the clichés) for a French-born writer. Still, he shows a sensitive ear in the gems he extracts from Lincoln and Thoreau.
And maybe these are, finally, what endures after a steeping in A Jacques Barzun Reader: the small wonders that he saves from history’s incinerator. Like the suicide note of an anonymous Englishman: “Too much buttoning and unbuttoning.” Or the curiously forked and poignant plea of Zacharia Walker facing a lynch mob: “Don’t give me a crooked death because I am not white.” Or his account of William Hazlitt’s death, in which we might again catch echoes of Barzun’s self-reflections: “after years of quasi persecution and disappointment, on his deathbed and no doubt thinking of his intimacy with art and literature, his last words were: ‘Well, I’ve lived a happy life.’”