Michael Dirda
Michael Dirda
Critic

The story of a 104-year-old life: ‘Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind,’ reviewed by Michael Dirda

Just before World War I, Jacques Barzun — roughly rhymes with “parson” — used to play marbles with the great French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who died in 1918. When, in 1920, Barzun’s parents decided to emigrate to America, their 12-year-old son began to improve his elementary English by reading Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and by carrying a pocket dictionary with him wherever he went. Seven years later, he graduated from Columbia University at the top of his class, Phi Beta Kappa with a major in history, winner of the William H. Fox Memorial Prize and the Philolexian Prize in essay and oratory, the class valedictorian of 1927. Barzun was all of 19 years old.

He is now 104.

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Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World and the author of the memoir “An Open Book” and of four collections of essays: “Readings,” “Bound to Please,” “Book by Book” and “Classics for Pleasure.”

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(Frederic C. Beil) - ”Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind” by Michael Murray.

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During the intervening 85 years or so, Barzun has been, for decade after decade, one of America’s leading cultural historians and men of letters. For many years he taught “Great Books” at his alma mater — often in tandem with his friend the literary critic Lionel Trilling — and later became Columbia’s provost. He lectured at universities around the country, translated occasionally, appeared on radio and TV programs, and served as president of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He reviewed for every major magazine and periodical, becoming chief book columnist for Harper’s in the late 1940s and one of the founders and judges of the Mid-Century Book Society in the 1950s. Following his retirement from Columbia in 1975, Barzun took up still another job as a literary adviser and consultant to Scribners. At age 92, he capped his career by producing the mammoth “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life” (2001).

But even that late summa, a surprise bestseller, scratches only the surface of Barzun’s intellectual range. Consider just a handful of his other book titles: “Race: A Study in Modern Superstition” (1937); “Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage” (1941); “Teacher in America” (1945); “Berlioz and the Romantic Century” (1950); “Music in American Life” (1956); “The Modern Researcher,” with Henry F. Graff (1957, with many later editions); “Follett’s Modern American Usage” (1966); “A Stroll With William James” (1983); and “An Essay on French Verse for Readers of English Poetry” (1990).

Michael Murray discusses all these books, often in considerable detail, in his intellectual biography “Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind.” As the subtitle suggests, the more personal aspects of his subject’s life are only lightly sketched in. Murray does stress, however, that after a broker absconded with the family’s funds, a very young Barzun assumed the main financial responsibility for his parents. This, in part, accounts for all the outside literary activity: He needed the money. We learn, too, that in person Barzun loves our national game — “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” — and every kind of pun, that his intellectual heroes and models include Samuel Butler, Bernard Shaw, Montaigne and, most of all, William James, and that he is in public urbane and courteous, even courtly, although sometimes seeming cold and aloof.

Barzun was, from the very beginning, an excellent teacher. In one of his first history classes, he tells us, there “was a beautifully dressed man of about forty, with very black hair and a signet ring with a diamond and a tie pin; he was done up to the nines. At the end of the first semester, he came to me and said: ‘I am a Turk, and I want to express my gratitude because in your dealing with the Turkish question you have been perfectly fair. This means so much, I want to tell you that if ever at any time someone stands in your way or has done you harm, here is my card, just call me, and he will be taken care of.’ ”

Barzun adds, “I have strewn the byways with my victims.”

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter of this affectionate yet sometimes slightly dry book is the one entitled “Simple and Direct.” Here Murray describes Barzun’s lifelong working methods:

“To begin with, whether perusing a volume of philosophy, or merely skimming a novel or short story, he early developed the habit of making indexes on flyleaves. Some fifty heads denoted his special interests. . . . After finishing a book that gripped him, he would spend a day or two mentally summarizing what he thought of it. The process was a kind of unconscious sifting, more in the back of his mind than the front. . . . When he found an interesting author, he tried to read everything he or she had written. . . . Finally, as a complement to the notes he wrote on flyleaves, he formed the habit of making slips. These were three-by-five pieces of paper, not cards, on which he jotted down thoughts, ideas, references, phrases, observations, and puns. He would fasten the slips together by topic, which for easy sorting he would have marked in a corner, and then put them in folders and then, when a folder grew unwieldy, in boxes. By the time the accumulation reached a certain bulk, it had begun to turn into a book.”

One of those slip-created books is my own favorite among Barzun’s many works, and perhaps his most enduring. Written with his boyhood friend, the physicist Wendell Hertig Taylor, “A Catalogue of Crime” (revised edition, 1989) lists more than 5,000 novel-length mysteries, collections of detective stories, true-crime books and assorted volumes celebrating the delights of detection. Every entry is annotated, and a succinct critical judgment given. The authors do favor the classic puzzles of the Golden Age — roughly 1900 to 1950 — but it is here that the contemporary reader wants expert guidance. Barzun is a particular admirer of Rex Stout, having elsewhere published an essay in which he argues that Archie Goodwin, the legman for the obese, orchid-growing detective Nero Wolfe, is a modern avatar of Huck Finn and one of the great characters of American literature. That essay, by the way, can be found in “A Jacques Barzun Reader” (2002). Edited by Murray, it makes the ideal complement to this solid intellectual biography.

For much of his career, Barzun has been regarded, and sometimes disparaged, as a traditionalist, a conservative thinker critical of modern orthodoxies and convinced that, culturally, the 20th century had grown decadent and fuzzy-minded. Against the loss of standards and our age’s myriad confusions, he has long stood for an engaged critical intelligence, built on serious reading, skill in writing clear and direct English, and “a long tradition of thought.” To Barzun it remains, as Murray’s book stirringly reminds us, “a matter of honor to keep up the fight for the cultured, civilized life.”

That’s one of the few fights that’s always worth fighting.

Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room. His latest book, “On Conan Doyle,” has just been published.

Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind

By Michael Murray

Beil. 319 pp. $26.95

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