Age of Reason
In his hundred years, Jacques Barzun has learned a thing or two.
by Arthur Krystal October 22, 2007
For the past few years, Jacques Barzun has been dreaming more and more in French. Sometimes two people are speaking—one in English, the other in French—as though nothing could be more natural than the cadences of one language summoning the other. If awakened by the chatter, Barzun isn’t sure whether he has dreamed in French and incorporated a native English speaker, or vice versa. He finds these conversations oddly soothing, but he recognizes that they’re a sign of aging, the tic of a mind seeking a moment when all the world spoke French.
These days, Barzun doesn’t have much occasion to speak the language of Flaubert, whose grammar and syntax, by the way, he considers slovenly. He lives with his wife, Marguerite, in her home town of San Antonio, Texas, where he retired after spending more than seventy years in New York, most of them on the faculty of Columbia University. Barzun is usually out of bed by 6 A.M. He brews coffee, reads the San Antonio Express-News, exercises for forty minutes, and heads down the hall to his study. After lunch, he dips into the manuscripts and books that people send him, answers letters, and takes calls from family members and friends. In the afternoon, he likes to read in the sunroom, whose white brick walls and black-and-white tiled floor accommodate without protest a mélange of armchairs and end tables of no particular style. But then all the furnishings in the house—including the art: Piranesi fortifications, Daumier scenes of Parisian life, Expressionist studies by Cleve Gray, and bright watercolors of flowers and plants by Marguerite—have an aesthetic compatibility that seems to issue more from accident than from design. Cocktails are at six-thirty (Barzun favors Manhattans); a light dinner follows, then a session with the New York Times. Barzun doesn’t watch TV and is usually in bed by nine-thirty. Not long afterward, someone starts speaking in French.
Next month, Barzun, the eminent historian and cultural critic, will turn one hundred. His idea of celebrating his centenary is to put the finishing touches on his thirty-eighth book (not counting translations). Among his areas of expertise are French and German literature, music, education, ghost stories, detective fiction, language, and etymology. Barzun has examined Poe as proofreader, Abraham Lincoln as stylist, Diderot as satirist, and Liszt as reader; he has burnished the reputations of Thomas Beddoes, James Agate, and John Jay Chapman; and he has written so many reviews and essays that his official biographer is loath to put a number on them. There’s nothing hasty or haphazard about these evaluations. Barzun’s breadth of erudition has been a byword among friends and colleagues for six decades. Yet, in spite of his degrees and awards (he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom), Barzun regards himself in many respects as an “amateur” (the Latin root, amator, means “lover”), someone who takes genuine pleasure in what he learns about. More than any other historian of the past four generations, Barzun has stood for the seemingly contradictory ideas of scholarly rigor and unaffected enthusiasm.
One of those enthusiasms produced what may be his most frequently quoted sentence: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” The line, extracted from his book “God’s Country and Mine,” is inscribed on a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame and routinely trotted out by news anchors and NPR commentators. Sometimes, Barzun worries that after his books go out of print only those fourteen words will be remembered. Or so he said one evening not long ago, when I was visiting him in San Antonio. We had finished dinner and were sitting in the living room. When he saw me looking at a portrait of his mother by Albert Gleizes, Barzun remarked that it was the third Cubist portrait ever done. “Not the third Cubist picture,” he cautioned, “the third Cubist portrait.” He thinks the first may have been Picasso’s “Woman Seated in an Armchair,” and the second Gleizes’s “Portrait of Jacques Nayral.” Barzun’s taste and attitudes were formed at the beginning of the modernist movement—he played in Duchamp’s studio and attended the orchestral opening of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps”—and he has yet to come around to the cultural aftermath.
Barzun’s declinist views about Western civilization are no secret. One reason that “From Dawn to Decadence,” an eight-hundred-page history of Western civilization from 1500 to the present, which he published at the age of ninety-two, was such an improbable best-seller (“the damnedest story you’ll ever read,” David Gates called it in Newsweek) was its contention that Western civilization is winding down, that “the forms of art as of life seem exhausted.” But, when Barzun insists that he sees “the end of the high creative energies at work since the Renaissance,” his tone is less that of someone appalled by what’s happening than of someone simply recording the ocean currents.
Barzun began to appreciate the transience of civilization almost as soon as he learned what the word meant. Born outside Paris in 1907, he was six years old when the First World War broke out. Early on, he had a sense that, in Paul Valéry’s harsh aperçu, “a civilization has the same fragility as a life.” The war shattered the world that he knew and, as he later wrote, “visibly destroyed that nursery of living culture.” This isn’t entirely a figure of speech. On Saturdays before the war, his parents’ living room had been a raucous salon where many of Europe’s leading avant-garde artists and writers gathered: Varèse played the piano, Ozenfant and Delaunay debated, Cocteau told lies, and Apollinaire declaimed. Brancusi often stopped by, as did Léger, Kandinsky, Jules Romains, Duchamp, and Pound.
In 1914, when the shells began to fall, the visits gradually ceased; soon came the names of the dead. His parents tried to conceal the losses, but the boy became depressed and, as he learned later, began hinting at suicide. At the age of ten, his parents bundled him off to the seashore at Dinard, where he immersed himself in Shakespeare and James Fenimore Cooper.
It’s tempting to relate Barzun’s skepticism about recent cultural developments (he’s inclined to regard the provocations of later artists, from John Cage to Damien Hirst, as leaves from a tree that was planted before the First World War) to the intensity of his childhood milieu and its abrupt disappearance. Barzun readily acknowledges that the accident of birth is “bound to have irreversible consequences,” but he rejects the idea that his character or sense of the world derives from any loss that he might have suffered as a child. In fact, when I broached the possibility that his precise way of formulating ideas and strict attention to empirical evidence are distinctive qualities of the civilization that he saw disintegrate before his eyes, his response was gently quizzical. “Why must you find trauma where there is none?” he asked. “I grew up a child of a bourgeois family, with emancipated parents who surrounded themselves with people who talked about ideas. My views were formed by my parents, by the lycée, and by my reading. How else should I be?”
With the war over, Barzun’s father, the poet and diplomat Henri Martin Barzun, offered his only son a choice of completing his studies in England or in America. Barzun, with visions of Chingachgook dancing in his head, didn’t hesitate, and in 1920 the family settled in New Rochelle. Barzun, with the aid of tutors, entered Columbia at fifteen. His student life presaged his professional one. He majored in history, reviewed theatre for the daily Spectator, edited the monthly literary magazine, became the president of the Philolexian Society, and, together with his friend Wendell Hertig Taylor, kept a running tally of every mystery book that came along. Their brief descriptions, scribbled on three-by-five-inch index cards, eventually coalesced into “A Catalogue of Crime,” one of the foremost reference works in the mystery/suspense genre. He also managed to graduate as valedictorian of his class, a feat he considers less impressive than having written the 1928 Varsity Show, “Zuleika, or the Sultan Insulted.”
Barzun joined the history faculty a year after graduating, at a moment when British and American universities, despite a general dislike of things Teutonic, were in thrall to the ideal of Wissenschaft, or scientific knowledge. Philosophers such as Wilhelm Dilthey had argued that history was a succession of conceptual forms and styles, capable of being classified and studied methodically. (Another German, of course, had maintained that class struggle was actually the transformative force behind historical events.) History was now thought too serious to be left to biographers and storytellers; and even Lord Acton urged his students to “study problems in preference to periods.” Barzun, though hardly a practitioner of the old popes-and-princes school of history (his first books examined ideas about race and freedom), disapproved of attempts to refashion history as a social science. History wasn’t “a piece of crockery dredged up from the Titanic,” he wrote; it was, “first, the shipwreck, then a piece of writing.” He demanded, therefore, that historical narrative include “the range and wildness of individuality, the pivotal force of trifles, the manifestations of greatness, the failures of unquestioned talent.” His models were Burkhardt, Gibbon, Macaulay, and Michelet, authors of imperfect mosaics characterized by a strong narrative line. As for philosopher-historians like Vico, Herder, and Spengler, Barzun held that they did not, despite creating prodigious works of learning, write histories at all: “It is not a paradox to say that in seeking a law of history those passionate minds were giving up their interest in history.”
In Columbia, Barzun found a genial host for his far-flung interests. In addition to the broadly conceived Contemporary Civilization course, Columbia offered a General Honors class—later, the Colloquium on Important Books—that let a select group of upperclassmen read the Western classics with instructors from two fields. When Barzun was assigned to the Colloquium, in 1934, his teaching partner was the English instructor Lionel Trilling. Among the most influential literary critics to emerge from the academy, Trilling admitted late in life that he had once stood “puzzled, abashed, and a little queasy” before the “high artistic culture of the modern age,” a discomfort no doubt torqued by sitting at a table next to a man whose mind had been formed at first hand by that culture. The Colloquium, as the word implies, was a conversation, and in 1934 it became not merely a conversation between instructors and undergraduates but also a dialogue between the two men that lasted until Trilling’s death, in 1975.
Dissimilar in many respects, the urbane, Americanized Frenchman, with his easy manner, and the shy, intense, Jewish writer-aspirant from Queens, who had only recently renounced his Marxist views, soon shared their thoughts, showed each other drafts of their work, and gradually began to carve out a new discipline in American education. They broadened the critical spectrum to include the biographical and social conditions attending the creation of any cultural artifact, and rerouted the notion of individuality or genius toward a busy intersection where various historical forces converged.
Barzun and Trilling, it could be said, also broadened each other. One day in the mid-nineteen-thirties, they began talking about novelists, and Barzun mentioned his admiration for Henry James. Trilling, who had read only a few of James’s stories, replied that he thought him not much more than a “social twitterer.” Barzun pressed upon him “The Pupil” and, as he recalls, “The Spoils of Poynton.” Trilling was duly persuaded, and marched off to convince Phillip Rahv and William Phillips, the editors of Partisan Review, that James was a writer to be taken seriously—and within five or six years he was.
At the Colloquium, books and ideas were thrown open to discussion; almost every approach was tolerated. “Cultural criticism” was Barzun and Trilling’s coinage for their lack of method, and it worked so well that, in the mid-fifties, Fred Friendly, an executive producer at CBS News, tried (and failed) to persuade the two men to offer a version of the Colloquium for television. “It was awe-inspiring,” the historian Fritz Stern, a 1946 alumnus of the Colloquium, recalled recently. “There I was, listening to two men very different, yet brilliantly attuned to each other, spinning and refining their thoughts in front of us. And when they spoke about Wordsworth, or Balzac, or Burke, it was as if they’d known him. I couldn’t imagine a better way to read the great masterpieces of modern European thought.”
The class met on Wednesday evenings, and, as the decades passed and more specialized approaches to literature emerged, Barzun and Trilling remained committed to the essential messiness of culture. Neither the self-isolating pieties of the New Critics, nor the technical proficiency of the Russian Formalists, nor the class-bound shibboleths of Marxist writers held sway in their classroom. As a result, they were condemned, as Barzun recalled, “for overlooking the autonomy of the work of art and its inherent indifference to meaning; for ignoring the dialectic of history,” not to mention “the ‘rigorous’ critical methods recently opened to those who could count metaphors, analyze themes, and trace myths.”
Basically, Barzun and Trilling cast themselves in the Arnoldian mold of relating culture to conduct. Matthew Arnold believed that judging books “as to the influence which they are calculated to have upon the general culture” would help realize man’s better nature and, thus, eventually improve society itself. Trilling and Barzun were less dreamy about the critic’s power, but, like Arnold, they saw no fissure between moral and aesthetic intelligence. They interpreted books liberally and wrote about them with a fluency and a precision befitting R. P. Blackmur’s definition of criticism as “the formal discourse of an amateur.”
For all that, Barzun was never a “New York intellectual.” He occasionally fraternized with the Partisan Review crowd, but he avoided the sectarian wars that seemed to fuel their lives and work; he appears only marginally in most accounts of the literary figures who rotated around the magazine. Yet, when a mid-century issue of Time came out with a lead article entitled “America and the Intellectual,” it wasn’t Edmund Wilson, or Lionel Trilling, or Sidney Hook, or Mark Van Doren whose likeness appeared on the cover (though all were mentioned inside); it was that of a man who hadn’t even been born here.
Around 1941, Barzun took on a larger classroom, becoming the moderator of the CBS radio program “Invitation to Learning,” which aired on Sunday mornings and featured four or five intellectual lights discussing books. From commenting on books, it was, apparently, a short step to selling them. In 1951, Barzun, Trilling, and W. H. Auden started up the Readers’ Subscription Book Club, writing monthly appreciations of books that they thought the public would benefit from reading. The club lasted for eleven years, partly on the strength of the recommended books, which ranged from Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” to Hannah Arendt’s “The Human Condition,” and partly on the strength of the editors’ reputations.
Barzun’s public reputation had been made with the appearance of “Romanticism and the Modern Ego” (1943), which defied prevailing opinion by arguing that the difference between the ostensibly unruly Romantic movement and the ostensibly neoclassical Enlightenment was fundamentally social and political, not aesthetic. “The Romanticists’ point was in fact not an emotional point at all,” Barzun claimed, “but an intellectual point about the emotional life of man.” It was a bold statement to make at a time when Eliot’s condescensions to the early-nineteenth-century poets dominated literature departments, and perhaps it took a historian to recognize that Eliot’s distrust of personality and radicalism caused him to misjudge the Romantics’ debt to, among others, Rousseau and Kant. As Barzun laid it out, Romanticism was no aberrant aesthetic movement but reflected an intellectual sensibility perfectly suited to a hectic and idealistic age. In short, he helped make Romanticism respectable.
Although Barzun’s influence on literary studies is difficult to assess, there’s little doubt about his role in the revival of Hector Berlioz. Barzun had heard Berlioz’s “Rakoczy March” at a children’s concert in Paris when he was four or five, and, nearly forty years later, when putting the finishing touches on his biography of the composer, he noticed that the French and German scores of “Roméo et Juliette” contained a small discrepancy. (The placing of mutes on the strings at one point in the Love Scene was different.) He happened to mention this to Toscanini’s assistant, and a few days later he was having tea at Toscanini’s house in Riverdale, discussing music in general and Berlioz’s instrumentation and harmonics in particular.
Toscanini was one of a small number of musicians at mid-century who admired Berlioz. The rest of the music world, along with “conservatives, clerics, liberals and socialists,” Barzun wrote, “all joined in repudiating” the Romantic style. But, where others heard in Berlioz disorder and bombast, Barzun discerned exuberance, vividness, and dramatic flair. When he listened to Berlioz, Barzun heard “Gothic cathedrals, the festivals of the Revolution, the antique grandeur of classic tragedy, the comic force of Molière and Beaumarchais, and the special lyricism of his own Romantic period.” Barzun didn’t just like Berlioz’s music; he liked the mind that made the music, and his two-volume “Berlioz and the Romantic Century” (1950) not only spurred revisionist studies of Berlioz but also brought his music back into a general repertoire. “When I left school, I had to educate myself, and Jacques Barzun was part of my education,” the British conductor Sir Colin Davis told me. Davis had lobbied for Berlioz’s music in England and in 1969 he conducted a magnificent performance of “Les Troyens” in London that eventually led to his recording all Berlioz’s major works.
As much as he wrote about music and literature, Barzun was no unworldly aesthete, and his practical and political side was put to the test in 1958, when he assumed the inaugural post of provost and dean of faculties at Columbia. He remained provost for ten years and is generally credited with extricating the university from its financial and administrative woes. He also replaced the music played at graduation with the march from “Les Troyens.” Barzun returned to teaching the history of Western civilization just as it was coming under attack by various Continental theorists, whose repudiation of hierarchical structures and determinate meaning challenged everything that Barzun believed in. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Barzun became a symbol of the Old Guard, a mandarin scholar futilely defending the works of dead white males. Even as late as 1990, he had a walk-on in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,’s smart, hardboiled spoof of the canon wars, dressed in evening clothes and packing a .38 Beretta, holding forth on standards and errors of usage.
In truth, Barzun looked the part of someone who embodied tradition. He stood a straight-up six feet two inches and wore clothes that, if not expensive, looked expensive on him. His hair was silver, his forehead high and broad, and his nose long and straight, with a slight dip at the end. He looked ambassadorial, and possessed an air of authority that had less to do with giving orders than with the expectation that he would be listened to. Carolyn Heilbrun, one of the first female professors in Columbia’s English and Comparative Literature Department, remembers that she felt patronized by Trilling and other male faculty, but she wrote about Barzun almost reverently:
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.
When I first encountered Jacques Barzun, in January of 1970, he was sixty-two and I was twenty-two. He was the University Professor of History at Columbia; I was a first-year graduate student in the English and Comparative Literature Department. He lived on upper Fifth Avenue; I lived in the Bronx, near Kingsbridge Avenue. He attended the opera; I hung out at revival movie theatres. He wore bespoke suits; I didn’t own a suit. He said “potato”; I said “pot.” Perhaps because we didn’t really know each other (to me, he was just a name following the introduction to my Bantam edition of “Germinal”; to him, I was just another student in a green Army jacket who smoked filterless Camels), Barzun and I hit it off.
After I began to read his books, I noticed that the historian and the critic had distinctive voices. When Barzun is compressing great batches of information, his prose races across spatial and chronological vistas, delivering facts, their causes and implications, in a strictly utilitarian, almost rat-a-tat manner. When he’s addressing an artist’s work, however, the prose becomes redolent, more capacious, its syntactical flourishes a tacit reflection of real appreciation. Very few historians could so confidently gauge a writer’s mind:
Shaw knows at any moment, on any subject, what he thinks, what you will think, what others have thought, what all this thinking entails. . . . Shaw is perhaps the most consciously conscious mind that has ever thought—certainly the most conscious since Rousseau; which may be why both of them often create the same impression of insincerity amounting to charlatanism.
Not everything that Barzun wrote struck me with equal force, and some years later, when I edited a compilation of his essays, I made so bold as to tinker with his style. The editorial process led to a spate of letters, highlighting our asynchronous temperaments. During one exchange, I suggested that the importance of what he was saying warranted heightened language. His reply came so fast that I thought he’d bounded across Central Park and put the letter in my mailbox himself. “You are a sky-high highbrow,” he wrote. “Me, I suspect highbrows (and low- and middle-) as I do all specialists, suspect them of making things too easy for themselves; and like women with a good figure who can afford to go braless, I go about brow-less.” Undeterred, I offered to rewrite the passages in question. My changes were acknowledged with fitting tribute. “To put it in a nice, friendly, unprejudiced way,” he responded, “your aim as shown in your rewritings of the ‘objectionable’ sentences strikes me as patronizing, smarmy, emetic!” My heart swells when I contemplate that exclamation point, as he seldom resorts to one.
Barzun doesn’t often emote on paper and is even less inclined to do so in person. When you talk to people who know him, the same adjectives pop up: “composed,” “distant,” “removed,” “reserved.” It’s not that friends find him cold or unhelpful; it’s just that Barzun exudes a formality that inhibits the exchange of intimate confidences. He doesn’t jabber. He won’t gossip about his friends or discuss his marriages (there have been three) or family (he has three children). After all, what does any of this have to do with his work? When I raised the prospect of talking to him about his life, he sighed and said, “It’s not a subject I’m interested in.” Still, I thought, he must confide in some people. So I asked Shirley Hazzard, whose husband, the French scholar Francis Steegmuller, was in the same class as Barzun at Columbia, if Barzun had ever revealed anything about his private life to her. Her reply was almost a reprimand: “If you know Jacques, you know that he doesn’t talk about those things.”
And yet Barzun is not all genteel restraint, something that Sir Colin Davis touched on when we spoke about Barzun’s appreciation of Berlioz: “Such an interesting figure, Berlioz—so intelligent and self-conscious, but also volatile and passionate. I rather think Jacques is like that—his internal life, I mean, not his personal life.” Barzun’s prose may not give off much heat, but over and over one finds paeans to pure feeling, to the sensuous response to experience. Like William James (his favorite philosopher), Barzun believes that feeling is at the root of all philosophy and art. “The greatest artists have never been men of taste,” Barzun wrote, with Berlioz in mind. “By never sophisticating their instincts they have never lost the awareness of the great simplicities, which they relish both from appetite and from the challenge these offer to skill in competition with popular art.” Because Barzun is so coolly analytical in his own work, one might infer that he would be drawn to poets of fine discrimination, to ingenious symbolists like Mallarmé and Valéry, and yet it’s the rude vitality of Molière and Hugo that engages him.
Obvious emotionalism is not the point; it’s the courage to be emotional that matters. Barzun has observed that “the vulgarity of mankind,” in the sense of the common man’s intense awareness of life—life with all its brief pleasures and bruising shocks—“is not only a source of art but the ultimate one.” It’s easy enough to understand why people don’t immediately see this side of Barzun, and pass over, without notice, sentiments such as “And when will art cease to be something so exclusively for nice people?” or “Reading history remakes the mind by feeding primitive pleasure in story.”
Barzun always seemed to know everything you had ever read or thought about reading one day, and he seemed just as comfortable talking about German architecture as about Venetian politics. “He was terrifying,” Steven Marcus, a former dean of Columbia College, recalled about the experience of being his student. “He would disgorge an absolutely enormous amount of information during his lectures, more than anyone could possibly remember, and what you felt was—you felt you couldn’t compete. I mean, you could imagine maybe one day writing something on the order of Trilling—maybe. But how could you ever know as much as Barzun did?” The charge against Barzun, accordingly, was that he spread himself too thin. As Marcus explained, “I think his natural reserve and the variegated subject matter have caused him to be taken less seriously by the intellectual crowd that runs literature departments and literary quarterlies.”
Barzun, though, never intended to write for that crowd. Instead, as he put it in a letter to me, he wanted “to write for a quite different, less homogeneous group: academics in other departments than English, people with a non-professional interest in the arts (doctors who play music, lawyers who read philosophy) and a certain number of men and women in business and philanthropy, in foundations and newspapers or publishing houses.” In writing for a general audience, Barzun was taking sides in an old debate about the relationship between the intellectual writer and the reading public. It was a question not of how much the reading public could bear but of who constituted that public. When Dr. Johnson wrote, “I rejoice to concur with the common reader,” he could count on that reader to actually read or hear about his rejoicing. He was speaking, after all, about a relatively small number of educated Brits who owned businesses or property and could afford to buy books. When Barzun began writing, the size and diversity of the reading public discouraged such assumptions.
Barzun wanted to do on the page what he did in the classroom: help the reader “carry in his head something more than the unexamined history of his own life,” not because knowledge is inherently good or makes one a better person but because it fosters an independence of mind. The more one learns about the course of civilization, he believed, the more one can appreciate its achievements. After a while, if you learn enough, you can argue that, say, Shaw’s mind more closely resembles Rousseau’s than Voltaire’s—and you may actually enjoy doing it. Consequently, there’s nothing Hegelian, Heideggerian, or hermeneutic about his work; no nihilistic or existential angst livens things up. Nor does he proffer any grand theory or unifying design that would explain the past in the categorical manner of Spengler’s organic cycle of regional growth and decay, or Braudel’s emphasis on broad socioeconomic “structures.” For Barzun, these systematic models of cause and effect run counter to the temper of history, which is intuitive, concrete, beholden to time and evidence:
History, like a vast river, propels logs, vegetation, rafts, and debris; it is full of live and dead things, some destined for resurrection; it mingles many waters and holds in solution invisible substances stolen from distant soils. Anything may become part of it; that is why it can be an image of the continuity of mankind. And it is also why some of its freight turns up again in the social sciences: they were constructed out of the contents of history in the same way as houses in medieval Rome were made out of stones taken from the Coliseum. But the special sciences based on sorted facts cannot be mistaken for rivers flowing in time and full of persons and events. They are systems fashioned with concepts, numbers, and abstract relations. For history, the reward of eluding method is to escape abstraction.
Barzun’s approach to history is, in a word, pragmatic. He is temperamentally in tune with William James’s self-assessment: “I am no lover of disorder, but fear to lose truth by the pretension to possess it entirely.” Among the things that drew Barzun to James was James’s conviction that every request made in good faith incurs some moral obligation in the claimant. A few weeks shy of his hundredth birthday, Barzun is still pressed to read manuscripts, give talks, and attend affairs in his honor. He tries to accommodate everyone, but there is simply less of him to go around. He’s five inches shorter than he used to be, a decrease due to aging and spinal stenosis, which causes pain and numbness in the legs. He relies on a cane or a walker to get around, and, as one might expect, he is alert to the irony of aging: when time is short, old age takes up a lot of time. There are doctors’ visits, tests to be suffered, results to wait for, ailments and medications to be studied—all distractions from the work. “Old age is like learning a new profession,” he noted drily. “And not one of your own choosing.”
Before I left San Antonio, Barzun called my attention to what he slyly referred to as his “most notable accomplishment.” It was a book lying on a coffee table in the sunroom and titled “Introduction to Naval History: An Outline with Diagrams and Glossary.” I turned it over in my hands and looked inside: it was, as promised, a point-by-point synopsis of seafaring events, designed for the education of naval officers. It turns out that, during the Second World War, the U.S. Navy commissioned Barzun, an associate professor at the time, to write it. And why not? It was always risky to assume that any topic was beyond Barzun’s ken.
Shirley Hazzard learned this one evening, in the mid-nineteen-seventies, when she and Barzun found themselves standing in a storage room on East Seventy-ninth Street, up to their necks in books. They had been asked by the head librarian of the New York Society Library to help him weed out superfluous and out-of-date volumes. “There we were,” Hazzard told me, raising her arm, “books stacked this high, and I thought, We’re really in for it. We’ll never get through these. Then Jacques reached into a pile, glanced at the title—it didn’t matter which book it was—and said, ‘This one’s been superseded by another; this one is still valid; this one can stay until someone or somebody finishes his new study,’ and in a couple of hours we were done. It was a very impressive performance, because, you know, he wasn’t performing at all. It’s just Jacques.”
Sooner or later, all of Barzun’s acquaintances experience their own “just Jacques” moment. Two years ago, while working on a piece for this magazine, I called Barzun to find out whether Lord Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary during the First World War, had said that the lights were going out all over Europe before hostilities had actually begun. Barzun asked if I was referring to him in my article as “Lord Grey.” I said I was, since the attribution was always the same. Barzun cleared his throat. “Well, you know, he wasn’t a lord when he said it. He didn’t become Viscount of Fallodon until 1916.” For the first time in thirty-odd years of conversation, I exclaimed, “Why would you know that?” He replied, mildly, “It’s my business to know such things.” ♦