March 31, 2002
Jacques Barzun became an intellectual celebrity in his 90s, with the enormous success of his (also enormous) survey “From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life” (2000). It was a marvellous book, absurdly comprehensive, extravagantly learned, full of lively anecdotes, choice quotations, illuminating judgments, and elegant prose, along with a few (mostly neoconservative) crotchets. “Dawn to Decadence” was less popular than Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind,” but for honorable reasons: Barzun was subtler, less flamboyant, more scrupulous. Even the apocalyptic fantasia that closes “Dawn,” though decidedly cranky, was not shrill or hectoring.
Like Bloom, Barzun had a long and illustrious academic career (as a history professor and provost at Columbia) before writing his best-seller. But Barzun was much more prolific, and more experienced too at writing for a general audience. “A Jacques Barzun Reader” lists 37 authored or edited works by Barzun, and 10 translations. A large number have grand – almost presumptuous – titles like “Of Human Freedom,” “The House of Intellect,” “The American University,” “The Energies of Art,” “Science: The Glorious Entertainment,” and “The Culture We Deserve.” Another batch are guidebooks on grammar and usage. Several more are about crime fiction, of which Barzun is an enthusiast. Even his scholarly works are written mainly for non-specialists: two wide-focus interpretations of modern intellectual history (“Darwin, Marx, and Wagner: Critique of a Heritage” and “Classic, Romantic, and Modern”), a biography of Berlioz, and the invitingly titled “A Stroll with William James.”
So diverse and distinguished an oeuvre undoubtedly deserves an anthology, especially now that its author is a marketable property. The “Reader,” edited by Barzun’s authorized biographer Michael Murray, is serviceable: just long enough, smoothly stitched together, and representative. Perhaps, though, it is a little too representative. Barzun’s output is so vast that, inevitably, not all of it is good (except, of course, in the eyes of an authorized biographer). Barzun the historical essayist and portraitist is unfailingly entertaining and instructive. Barzun the cultural critic and scold is often a bit tedious. Unfortunately, the “Reader” offers generous helpings of both Barzuns.
A talent for surfaces is different from a talent for depths, and not necessarily inferior. One of the best features of “Dawn to Decadence” was the “Cross Sections”: 20-page snapshots of great cities at significant moments – e.g., Madrid in 1450, Venice in 1650, London in 1715 – set in a panoramic political and cultural context. As an expository device, it was perfectly suited to Barzun’s gift for synopsis. The “Reader” contains a fine example of this genre, “Paris in the 1830s,” rescued from an obscure work of music history for which it served as an introduction. Uncle Jacques escorts us affably around the boulevards, pointing out buildings that have since disappeared and places where now-familiar buildings will soon be constructed, commenting on fashions, explaining the intricacies of salons and adultery, discoursing on the age’s much lower life expectancy, introducing us to figures now famous though then undiscovered. This is history as time travel, and is utterly delightful.
Too little of Barzun’s masterly mise-en-scene is included in the “Reader” for my taste. Fortunately, there are plenty of specimens of his other virtuoso form, the literary sketch. Though he disapproves of a great deal about the present, Barzun is very cordial toward the past. When one of his artistic or intellectual favorites has been underestimated or misunderstood, Barzun makes an ardent and persuasive champion. “I find myself most drawn,” he writes, “to the geniuses whose fame is unsettled. Of the ancients I prefer Euripides and Lucian; in recent times, William James, Walter Bagehot, and Samuel Butler; before them, Berlioz and Diderot.” All five of those moderns come in for perceptive tributes in the “Reader,” along with Hazlitt, Shaw, Wilde, Dorothy Sayers, Lincoln the Literary Artist,” and many more.
It is a treat. We learn from Barzun how Hazlitt’s “judgment encompasses its object, leaving it whole and illuminated”; why Thoreau is “the earliest and greatest of American Imagists”; the secret of Lincoln’s haunting sentences (“as a writer he toiled above all to find the true order for his thoughts – order first, and then a lightning-like brevity”); the paradoxical “character of prophetic authority which I think we must come to see in Wilde.” Barzun’s account of the exquisite tenderness and deep understanding between William and Henry James is enough to make any reader love them both (and Barzun too). He is an irresistible appreciator.
As a depreciator, Barzun is somewhat more resistible. Approval makes his writing relaxed and vivid; disapproval makes it prim and abstract. Rather than generous indignation, it often sounds like ungenerous indignation: the Higher Pique. There are too many pronouncements in this vein: “Divided against itself, the House of Intellect today has lost the sense of being a company apart, associated perhaps fitfully with authority, yet comforted by a freemasonry of manners and speech; envied or scorned from above and below, yet justifying the envy and helped to forget the scorn by qualities and powers it had earned and felt free to enjoy” (from “The Three Enemies of Intellect”); and too few in this vein: “To know in advance that everything and everybody is a fraud gives the derivative types what they call a wry satisfaction. … They look wry and drink rye and make a virtue of taking the blows of fate wryly. It is monotonous. I am fed up with the life of wryly” (from “Meditations on the Literature of Spying”). Too much wisdom, not enough wit. Then again, when his irritabilities coincide with one’s own – in the matter, say, of the deplorable laxness of contemporary American usage – the reader (or reviewer) will naturally feel that Barzun is eloquence itself.
Those who have read “From Dawn to Decadence” will be grateful for “The Jacques Barzun Reader.” Those who have not should certainly read “Dawn” first. But perhaps the ideal introduction to Barzun is a volume published last year, “A Company of Readers: Uncollected Writings of W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling from the Readers’ Subscription and Mid-Century Book Clubs” (Free Press). Barzun is consistently at his best, and the company is incomparable.