When I was young and thought I knew everything, I met a man who actually did know everything. Or so people said. It was 1970, and I was a first-year graduate student in English and comparative literature at Columbia University. On a whim, I took a crossover seminar offered by the history department that dealt with the writing of history and was taught by Professor Jacques Barzun. Barzun had already published 18 books, including The House of Intellect and Berlioz and the Romantic Century, and was famous among students and faculty for his breadth of knowledge. But I hadn’t heard of him. I was big for poetry and novels and books that explained the evolution of poetry and novels. I’d also majored in philosophy and took a prideful interest in such arcana as Frances Yates’s Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition and E. R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational. So Barzun wasn’t on my radar, and, for the life of me, I don’t know why I signed up for his class.
I showed up to find the only available seat at the end of a long table at whose other end sat a composed, distinguished-looking gent of around 60. He had neatly combed white hair and what can only be described as a professorial air. “He looked like his name,” the psychologist Kenneth Clark observed. “He personified prestige, authority, and self-confidence.” No concession was made to the youth culture of the late ’60s, when a number of professors began to adopt casual dress and asked to be called by their first names. Barzun looked born in jacket and tie, and from the perspective of an unruly, untutored student used to the unkempt and radical professors I had encountered at the University of Wisconsin, he was something entirely different. Learned, urbane, at ease, he seemed at home both in the academy and at court.
In effect, he seemed a man out of time. Nixon was president, the Vietnam war was going badly, student protests were commonplace, Black ghettos in Newark, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., had been kindling for violence, and the Kent State shootings would occur that spring. You could smell pot along upper Broadway, hear the Stones or the Doors blasting from fraternity houses on 114th Street, and revolution was a word that many people took seriously. A quick glance would have placed me among them: green army jacket, longish hair, engineer boots, a joint and around a dollar-fifty in my pocket. But I had little truck with either radicals or conservatives. I was opposed to the war because I thought it stupid, shameful, and horrific, but politics in general annoyed me. I had books to read, girls to bed, ideas to mull over.
Nor was I a good fit for the academy. I read fiendishly but erratically. I was, to use a cornball phrase, an intellectual loose cannon who took the canon of Great Books on faith. I believed in Shakespeare and Dante, Kafka and Dostoevsky, Proust and Mann; I believed with impregnable certainty that Herrick, Donne, Keats, Yeats, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas were better in an undeniable and absolute sense than other poets. That said, I was also something of an idiot, wasting time playing cards, getting stoned, going to bars and parties, sometimes barely able to get out of bed in the morning.
I mention all this because, for the last 42 years of his life, Jacques Barzun and I talked on a regular basis. Sometimes we spoke twice a week, sometimes once a month, but it was understood I was not to let too much time pass without getting in touch. When remiss, I’d get a note in the mail informing me of something he’d read or someplace he’d soon be visiting, ending with a question regarding my health or plans—in other words, a gentle reminder to call or write. Less frequently, I’d hear his cultured voice punctuated by a little throat clearing on my answering machine, inquiring as to my whereabouts. The obvious question is why Barzun bothered with the likes of me.
I date his curiosity to the second or third class of that winter semester. Although I was the youngest student in the seminar and the only one outside the history department, Barzun paid me no special attention until the subject of Goethe came up (I imagine as a poet deeply interested in history). At some point, one of the students, apparently with Marxist leanings, announced that Goethe had betrayed his genius. What nonsense, I thought. Unfortunately, I also, unintentionally, said it aloud. Barzun looked calmly toward me and asked if I cared to elaborate.
I haven’t a notion of what I said 50 years ago or what his response was, but I recall that when I went to his office to discuss the paper I was to write, he engaged me in wide-ranging conversation about my interests, at whose conclusion he pressed on me his 1961 Anchor paperback edition of Classic, Romantic, and Modern. When I attempted to return it a week later (thinking foolishly he might actually want it back), he asked me what I thought of it. I said, “It was all right.” He laughed.
Truth is, at the time, I thought it no more than a tremendously busy summary of cultural history. It had kept my interest, and I was amazed at the names, books, events, and ideas he threw into the mix, but I was in the grip of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Barzun’s book was too light for the 22-year-old intellectual heavyweight I fancied myself to be. And because I had a background in philosophy, I wasn’t bowled over by the hot intellectual tickets of the late ’60s and ’70s, like Barthes, Lacan, and Derrida, who entranced so many American educators. Barzun, too, wasn’t enthusiastic about semiotic and deconstructionist readings or about the dogma of indeterminacy, and so we were, on this score, simpatico.
Aside from books, we discussed what was happening around us. Columbia hadn’t recovered from the unrest of 1968, when police forcibly removed students from Low Memorial Library, and the campus still had its share of excitable undergraduates ready to protest the war, the companies that supported the war, racial oppression, or governmental policies of various stripes. The film footage of those years had it right: the ’60s were for a significant minority another country, which happened to be located in Berkeley, Madison, Manhattan, Cambridge, and on various campuses around the nation. And because I was the right age and enjoyed the perks of drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll, I suppose I was indistinguishable from most students, even though I didn’t quite feel like one of them. For one thing, I left graduate school after a year without a tear of regret from any of my teachers. Even Barzun felt that the field of comparative literature wasn’t about to lose an important voice.
He believed, in fact, that the world was going to gain a novelist. I was working on a novel, and he liked that. And when I finished it in the fall of 1971, he asked to see it. I was living at the time with friends in a squalid railroad flat on Avenue B between Sixth and Seventh streets. A Spanish social hall with pulsing lights bore down on us from across the street, and junkies shambled up and down the block. One morning the phone rang; it was for me. I clambered over naked bodies to pick it up, and I remember thinking, What the hell was Barzun, even the disembodied Barzun, doing on Avenue B? The man sometimes wore an ascot.
I went to see him that very afternoon. His office, on the first floor of Low Library, consisted of a spacious anteroom where sat a receptionist, who guarded the doors at either end. One led to Lionel Trilling’s inner sanctum, which I never saw; the other opened into a very large room, where along the right-hand wall sat Barzun’s assistant of many years, Virginia Xanthos, who made sure he wasn’t bothered by trifles, among which I, at the time, counted myself.
Barzun’s was not your typical professor’s office. Toward the back of the room, adorned with paintings and covered by a Persian rug, perhaps 20 feet from Virginia, were two comfortable armchairs in front of Barzun’s desk, on which that afternoon rested my manuscript “The Death of My Friends” (pretentious is only one word that comes to mind). He thought well of it. He thought so well of it that he had already made a copy and sent it to Simon Michael Bessie, a founder of Atheneum Publishers. He hoped I didn’t mind. I assured him I didn’t and walked out of Low Library without skipping down the long series of steps that led to street level.
I was not yet 24, and I was going to have a novel published. I don’t recall what I did the rest of that day or night. I might have celebrated with friends or perhaps kept the news to myself, delighting secretly in my brilliant future. As it turned out, my future wasn’t as bright as I thought. Bessie rejected the novel, making the usual noises about the difficulty of publishing midlist fiction. It was then turned down by the editor-in-chief of Doubleday. And then it was turned down by me. I reread it in light of the editorial comments and realized that the title wasn’t the only pretentious thing about it. I tossed it without ceremony into a trashcan along Avenue A.
Now what? I took a job as a night watchman in a rundown hotel on the Upper West Side and worked on short stories. After nine or 10 months, I decided to go someplace where I wouldn’t get in trouble, where I’d have time to write another novel. A friend recommended Charleston, South Carolina. I called Barzun and told him of my plan, such as it was. He asked me to come by, and when I did, he handed me a check for $800. A gift, he said. I resisted; he insisted. I took it without quite knowing if I should have.
I lived in Charleston on and off for almost a year and wrote another novel, arguably worse than my first. This time Homer didn’t nod. Barzun found the book to be the “collegiate” novel I didn’t write the first time around. Nonetheless, I submitted it to Alan Williams at Viking Press, one of New York’s better-known editors, who thought it showed promise but needed a rewrite. I’m sure he was right, but I wanted to move on and opted against it.
I next found myself in Lexington, Kentucky, driving a truck and submitting short stories to The New Yorker, whose fiction editor, Charles (Chip) McGrath, was good enough to return each one with smart, encouraging comments, which led me to keep producing them. I have yet to exact my revenge. Barzun and I exchanged cards and letters, and I think he liked the idea of my hitching around the country, toiling in factories, driving a truck, working construction, while also diligently writing.
source, reporting on trending events in the culture.
I returned to New York in late 1976 and found a small apartment on the Upper West Side. It was a strange time to be in the city. Harlem was drug-ridden and dangerous, and Times Square was about as sleazy as it would ever get. It was pre-AIDS, and the prospect of sex was, if your nose was pointed in the right direction (east, west, north, or south), never far away. Strip joints, topless bars, and S&M clubs were commonplace, and if you were friendly with three or four people around the age of 30, you’d probably hear about three or four SoHo parties every weekend. Just about everyone I knew smoked pot or did coke and some did H. A night out began around 10 p.m. and might extend to dawn if you knew someone who knew the bartender at an after-hours bar catering to celebrities, transvestites, and musicians who’d finished their last set.
This was not a New York that Barzun frequented. Nor did he have much to do with the intellectual stirrings around The Paris Review or The New York Review of Books. He had retired from teaching in 1975 and was now a literary consultant to Charles Scribner’s. I’d visit him from time to time in the old Beaux-Arts building at 597 Fifth Avenue, and we’d discuss whatever was on my mind and sometimes what was on his. In those days, I was mulling over my fitness as a writer of fiction. Nothing that I wrote seemed worthwhile to me. But I kept at it, and by the end of the decade I had cobbled together a novella about my days as a night watchman, which Barzun urged me to publish. It was oddly touching, the confidence he had in my abilities. Nonetheless, I was reluctant to send the manuscript around because the story seemed forced, and once again I put something aside, keeping only those pages that didn’t annoy me. When I told him what I’d done, he called me a “wretch,” the first and last time I heard the word applied to anyone.
I didn’t feel like a wretch; I felt like someone who was bouncing around the city unsure what to do next. Then, through a chance encounter, I was offered a job as a part-time semi-editor at Basic Books. Although Barzun was pleased that I was getting a steady paycheck, he was disappointed that I had given up on fiction. Every so often he’d bring up my novella, and I would remind him that I was a wretch and not to expect much. Nonetheless, he remained eager to draw me out on what was happening around town. As usual, he was curious about slang, attitudes, beliefs, goings-on. In telephone calls or during my visits to Scribner’s, he’d press me for details about manners and mores, just as he had done in Low Library 10 years earlier. I didn’t know how many other young people he regularly spoke to, but I liked to think that I was his primary source, reporting on trending events in the culture. Once, on the phone, I wryly remarked to his delight that I was Archie Goodwin to his Nero Wolfe. I knew things he didn’t, I went to places he couldn’t, I did things he surely wouldn’t.
Being young, self-centered, and only a peripheral actor on the cultural scene, I would not fully appreciate the extent of Barzun’s interests and activities for several years. It would take too long to list his various positions, but if anyone contradicted the idea of the intellectual who gets his pocket picked while reading Nietzsche, that person was Jacques Barzun. From 1951 to 1963, he, along with Trilling and W. H. Auden, ran the Readers’ Subscription Book Club and its successor, the Mid-Century Book Club. From 1955 to 1968, he served as dean of the graduate faculties and then provost of Columbia University. He was a consultant to Life magazine, the literary critic for Harper’s magazine, a director of the Macmillan publishing company, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a director of the Council for Basic Education, and twice president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, all the while serving on numerous boards, including those of the Boston Athenaeum, the Aspen Institute, and The American Scholar.
Not to put too fine a point on it, he was more accomplished than the person writing these words. To those few who knew us both, we presented a curious juxtaposition. But it wasn’t simply a matter of opposites’ attracting, although I think we both enjoyed the weak gravitational force between us. Where he was calm, I was quick to anger. Where he enjoyed prestige, I eschewed the institutions necessary to attain it. Where I reacted hotly to people and their behavior, he concluded that “resentment is a form of ego I detest.” And I believe it was my unsettled state that drew me to him and, in a strange way, him to me. Even a malcontent can come in handy.
One morning he called to tell me that he had been asked to contribute an essay to a journal. He had handed in the article on time but never heard again from the journal’s editor, nor had he received the promised honorarium. He wondered if I knew anything about the editor. I replied I did not. “Ah, that’s too bad,” Barzun said, or words to that effect. He paused. I waited. The penny dropped. “Perhaps I can find out what the problem is,” I offered. “Would you?” he said. I would, and I did, and he received a check some weeks later.
“The scruffier the lad the more [Barzun] liked him,” Diana Trilling observed without humor. Not sure how scruffy I was in 1970, but I think he enjoyed the company of someone who moved in less rarefied circles. It’s awkward and self-serving trying to convey why someone likes or approves of you, but certainly there grew a bond between us that strengthened as the decades passed. And when I began to review books and write critical essays in the early 1980s, he was happy to review my work, which he treated as he did that of any addled student. In his tiny but legible scrawl, he identified every grammatical or factual error, every instance of ambiguity, every word choice he thought slightly off the mark or perhaps too colloquial.
His ministrations aside, I knew my way around books and soon began contributing regularly to half a dozen journals and newspapers. I wasn’t getting rich, but I was getting by. Partially to help me along, he asked me in 1988 to edit a collection of essays and addresses that he had lying around. As his editor, I was someone who presumably could improve his work, especially the pieces composed to be read aloud. Barzun, who had already railed in print about the meddling of copy editors, was not—shall we say?—amenable to every suggestion. If he had a flaw as a writer, it was that his credo of “simple and direct” could at times descend into a monotone. Given the extraordinary amount of work he produced, it wasn’t a serious failing, but I wanted him to do better whenever possible, and so I rewrote sentences and passages because I knew he wouldn’t stand for it. Sure enough, he quickly rewrote me, and we were both happier for it, though only one of us admitted it.
By the time he asked me to put together a collection of the review-essays that he, Auden, and Trilling had written for the Readers’ Subscription and Mid-Century book clubs, we had been friends for almost 30 years and worked together amiably, perhaps because I was now, as I told him, getting to be as old as he was. Thankfully, he never did become old in the sense that his mind slowed or he forgot important events. One reason he remained sharp is that his curiosity never flagged. You’d think that his numerous interests and duties would have kept him constantly busy, but give him something that offered a challenge and he’d take it on. When I was subcontracted one year to write capsule arguments and questions for the LSAT, he sent me three of his own invention, which were far too subtle and complicated to use. When I began to write screenplays, he offered to help in writing one about Napoleon in Egypt.
The ’80s turned into the ’90s, and the world inside and outside the academy changed. Highbrow and lowbrow collapsed in the plastic arts and then in publishing. Identity politics reared its head and its long, spreading body soon followed. In classrooms, the humanities, instead of assessing culture, were now pressured to respond to shifting social attitudes. The intrusion of politics, of right thinking, of carefully weighted words in the teaching of books was not something that Barzun approved of, but he addressed it without rancor. Asked how he would describe himself politically, he replied, “Like any sensible man, I am a liberal, a conservative, and a radical.” And then, because he began to devote himself to his longest and most comprehensive book, and because his wife was from Texas, and because New York winters were beginning to get him down, he moved in 1996 to San Antonio.
Face-to-face meetings were now less frequent, but there was the phone and the U.S. mail (he never bothered with email), and we continued to speak of cabbages and kings, of books, music, current events, and people he’d known, an assortment that included: Marcel Duchamp, Richard Rodgers, Willy Brandt, Philip Johnson, Lincoln Kirstein, Colin Davis, William Paley, John Kenneth Galbraith, Herman Wouk, Andy Rooney. And these are only the ones I remember. What did we not talk about? His family, my family, and what caused us grief or pain. He enjoyed conversation, but not where one confided too much. Henry Graff, the presidential historian, who collaborated with Barzun on six editions of The Modern Researcher, told me that he could not remember when he and Barzun last talked about “personal stuff.” “I consider him a good friend,” Graff said. “I talk to him once a week; I’ve always felt comfortable with him, but I never spent an hour with him the way I did with Trilling, when I’d run into Lionel on the street or in the post office, and we’d stand around and jabber on about everything.”
Quite so. Barzun didn’t jabber. It’s not that he was concealing Baron de Charlus–like tendencies (as alluring as that thought is); he simply felt you shouldn’t be interested in his personal life because, after all, what did it have to do with you? And what did it have to do with his work? Formality was in order. Formality, he maintained, fostered clear thinking, whereas casualness tended to break down the natural barriers between people, leading to indifference and perhaps contempt. For Barzun, a noisy bonhomie, forced egalitarianism, and unwanted advances chipped away at one’s sense of self. Therefore, manners, by protecting the self, were a civilizing influence, not merely a byproduct of the class system.
In fact, it was his imperturbability that appealed, his being content to keep our relationship at a slight remove. I, too, didn’t want to get closer; I didn’t want him all of a sudden to open up his arms, enfold me in his personal fears and disappointments, and tell me how he felt about the loss of his second wife or the problems he had with his children or the spitting hatreds coiling inside him. I didn’t want to be on an equal footing, not because he was 40 years older but because he was the adult whose intellect and experience conferred prestige on his opinion of me. Hell, for years I didn’t want to call him by his first name because it felt wrong: He was the significant teacher I’d never had before, not necessarily the one who knew more than I did (which, of course, he did), but the one who seemed to have mastered his role in the world. I liked it that he could deftly and somehow impersonally move through life while I, in my 20s and 30s, careened into and off friendships and relationships. And no matter what happened, he was there, not to do anything so unoriginal as “support” me but simply to represent continuity and order. He was a constant; he never changed. He grew old and frail. His hearing grew worse, he developed tremors in his hand, he broke a hip. But his mind—until the last week of his life—remained the mind that I had first encountered in 1970.
Over the years I ran into academics who thought he spread himself too thin, who dismissed him for his own dismissal of intellectual trends, or who found his conservative views obsolescent. It didn’t bother him. He had been born in France at the beginning of the 20th century and witnessed two world wars. His temperament leaned toward the classical, but his intellect, formed when modernism and surrealism were getting under way, stayed open to ideas and innovation in the arts. Very little surprised or impressed him, but he reserved his cynicism for those artists or intellectuals who thought well of themselves without properly understanding how unoriginal they were. Conduct, he believed, affected character, and “a person’s character is known by the concepts he keeps.” I can’t name too many thinkers who would say that. Kant, perhaps? Or maybe a moral philosopher like G. E. Moore?
In any event, Barzun did, and he followed up by subscribing to William James’s notion that every reasonable request incurs a moral obligation in the person petitioned, and that granting such requests helps “ ‘moralize’ the universe.” And, as many writers can attest, Barzun was a soft touch: he’d read supplicants’ manuscripts even if they were 500 pages long. For years I tried to get him to cut back, but he acceded only when he turned 99 or thereabouts. How he managed to produce so many books, while carrying out his teaching and administrative duties, is beyond me. Despite all this, I was surprised when an English professor of my acquaintance referred to him as “a great man.”
Was he a great man? It never occurred to me to wonder. What constitutes greatness in a person—specifically, someone who deals in ideas? Books and reputation are not enough. Although Barzun received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 and seven years later the National Humanities Medal, he would have been the first to pooh-pooh such honors. In fact, he declined all honorary degrees and refused to accept awards that had money attached. It was the work that mattered, not the acclaim that might or might not accrue. And his work, aside from teaching, was examining music, opera, history, etymology, romanticism, French verse, American education, science, baseball, detective fiction, Montaigne, Rousseau, Diderot, Darwin, Wagner, Berlioz, Liszt, Abraham Lincoln, John Jay Chapman, William James, et al.
He had, of course, read all the historians from Herodotus to Hofstadter, but what sometimes gets underplayed is that he was a cultural historian. The term gets tossed around (less these days than formerly), but I’m not sure we ever understood it as Barzun did. Basically, he felt that he had to acquaint himself with everything that contributed to both the fact and the theory of civilization. It all interested him because it was all related. “The essence of culture,” he wrote, “is interpenetration. From any part of it the searching eye will discover connections with another part seemingly remote.” For Barzun, this meant synthesizing huge amounts of information in fields beyond the purview of historians proper. How many professors in any field could have discussed music with Arturo Toscanini, architecture with Daniel Libeskind, and fictional sleuthing with Rex Stout? Who but Barzun would have deduced that Bernard Shaw read French newspapers because in one of his plays he mentions a crime that had been reported only in the French press?
Barzun didn’t just study history, he considered everything that man had achieved or tried to achieve from the Renaissance onward, and what he considered, he remembered. His magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, published in 2000 when he was 92, contains an index that lists every man or woman who contributed something lasting to Western culture over the past 500 years. A surprising best seller, it’s also a book that the British commentator Alistair Cooke proclaimed “may fairly take its place alongside Gibbon,” which is a little like seating a contemporary playwright alongside Shakespeare.
What strikes me, however, is not the usual encomiums but the unusual concurrence of opinion about much of Barzun’s work. He was a darling of conservative critics like Hilton Kramer, Roger Kimball, and William Safire, yet did not lack for more liberal-leaning admirers such as Anne Fadiman, Michael Dirda, and Morris Dickstein. I attribute this to a mind fully aware of its debt to other minds that then serenely strikes out on its own. For better or worse, Barzun was sometimes a middlebrow popularizer (Science: The Glorious Entertainment), a guide to fledgling scholars (The Modern Researcher), a teacher of history who condemned its corruption by the academy (Clio and the Doctors), a composer of clerihews and satires under the name of Roger du Béarn, a musicologist (Music in American Life), an educator (Teacher in America; The House of Intellect), a psychologist/philosopher (A Stroll with William James), and finally the man who knew everything (Berlioz and the Romantic Century).
He had his disagreements with historians and writers (Leon Edel, for one, regarding something William James wrote), but I never came across a true vilifier except for Evelyn Waugh. In the winter of 1951, Life magazine sent Barzun to interview the novelist. Afterward, Waugh decided that Barzun had scotched his deal with the magazine: “Life had sent a smart-aleck down here,” he wrote to Graham Greene, “and that has ended my profitable connextion with them” (Feb. 27, 1952). Waugh’s diary entry reiterates the sentiment: “They sent me an apostate frog called professor Smart-Aleck Baboon. He stayed here and gave me a viva in history and reported all.” Which makes me wonder if Waugh’s pen was dipped in imperceptible acid when he wrote, “Dear Professor, I enjoyed our conversation so much last night. Do come again” (Dec. 18, 1951).
Like anyone else, he was fallible—just less so. He was not above pique and not above rushing to judgment. When someone misled him about my own conduct, he wrote to me in reproof but apologized immediately when informed of the truth. How he conducted himself in private or with his family is something I know little about. I know he had a temper ; I also know that he was not as self-contained as he wanted people to think. And I know that he was drawn to powerful emotions and believed them to be the bedrock of great music and literature. Although I’m certain that he would be able to reconcile his advocacy of manners with his preference for visceral works of art, I doubt that I would buy his explanation. People are complicated, and some people are more complicated than others.
We didn’t always see eye to eye. For one thing, he ruled out the idea that any one period could sum up either the best or the worst that humans are capable of. I don’t know that I agreed with him. From where I sit, the 20th century was terrible in a way that other centuries were not, if only because history had shown us the horrors of dictatorships and mechanized war and still we allowed the rise of Hitler and Stalin and Mao. As I listened to him expatiate on inventions, revolutions, and the unpredictable course of history, I recognized that his was always the long view. But how to determine whether equanimity in the face of discordant change is a result of learning or of temperament? In the end, it doesn’t matter. Because when attending closely to someone else’s view of the world, one sees that the degree and kind of knowledge derived from experience depends on age, health, biases, and inclinations, and on what one is willing to do to acquire it.
This may seem too bald a statement to have merit, but often it’s the differences between us, which if examined intelligently and assimilated imaginatively, that can produce something approaching wisdom. Not that this insight figured significantly in my own life, but I believe it characterized Barzun’s approach to things. He took the time to examine his relation to the world, which meant putting some distance between himself and others, and because of the way he carried himself, it took me a while to understand that he was able to care for me because it was safe to care. He could invest emotion in me because the risk wasn’t great; it didn’t interfere with his work. When I told his son-in-law that Barzun had hugged me before he went off to San Antonio, he expressed surprise, and I realized that Barzun was not demonstrative with his own children. Am I making excuses for him in hazarding that the cost would have been too great, that he was far too busy teaching, writing, and being in the world to expend the emotion desired by those closest to him, those who depended on him? Because he sensed I was not dependent, no matter my affection, he allowed himself to show affection for me.
And Barzun was safe for me, too. As an only child whose mother died early, I grew up with an overly protective father who was so emotionally involved in my well-being that I left home as soon as I could. Convinced that my writing would lead nowhere, he worried about me incessantly and for 20 years tried to dissuade me from the writing life. So it doesn’t take a psychologist to know why Barzun was a welcome alternative. His reserve, his steadiness, his belief in me obviated any potential explosiveness of the kind that existed in my other filial relationship.
More important, he had a soothing effect on me. I was calmer in his presence, as if the world wasn’t all about struggle, competition, and jockeying for position. Somehow he seemed detached from such things, and it was a detachment that subtly transferred to me. And when I think back on how little I knew then and how well I thought of myself (the two obviously went hand-in-hand), I see that he came along at a moment when I needed someone who represented what adulthood could be like, even if I sensed that my own would be very different. And so, for 40 years, whenever I heard his distinct but slightly throaty voice, the world made a little bit more sense, and it was a pleasure to make him laugh.
The last time I saw him was in 2007 in San Antonio. I was doing a piece about him for The New Yorker on the occasion of his 100th birthday. One afternoon, he said something that elicited a chuckle from me. He looked over and said casually, “You can include that when you write about me.” He meant down the road sometime. Unthinkingly, I replied, “Oh, I think this will be it.” He looked more puzzled than hurt, and I have always regretted brushing aside his suggestion. I knew why I had done so. I had already edited two books with his name on them and I didn’t want my own name to be automatically linked to his. Enough people knew of our friendship, and someone had even suggested that I was his Boswell. I wasn’t; he has an official biographer, and frankly I wanted to ward off such perceptions. I was his friend, not an acolyte or protégé. It was this disinclination that made me palatable to him. At any rate, I wished many times that I had not demurred so quickly. What the hell do we know about how we’re going to feel tomorrow?
In my case, there was grief. Then emptiness. Then, after a few years, more emptiness. Emptiness is the right word even though it’s a misnomer. How can there be emptiness when there is thought and emotion? Not a fine distinction, but one I might have mentioned to the man whose absence is the cause of the emptiness. Jacques died on October 25, 2012, five weeks shy of his 105th birthday.
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