I met Jacques Barzun only once, in 2002, when I joined him for lunch in San Antonio. He was at the time ninety-four. I’m tempted to say a sprightly ninety-four – he still had a decade ahead of him – but that isn’t quite right. He walked with a cane, and complained about the pains of his worsening spinal stenosis. Despite being a prodigy of creative longevity – no scholar I’m aware of has lived or written over so great a span – he was unsentimentally frank about age’s hardships. “Old age is like learning a new profession,” he famously remarked “and not one of your own choosing.” Growing up in France amidst the Great War’s carnage he was, from dawn to decadence, ever the realist.
Tall, if slightly bent, his was a noble figure, possessed, even full of years, of a graceful dignity and unassuming courtesy that revealed not just the man but the gentleman of letters. Nor was there a trace of pretention. Yes, he knew Ellison, Trilling, Dewey, and all sorts of others, and related charming anecdotes about them, but when I mentioned how I had, not long before, enjoyed Conrad’s masterpiece Nostromo, he replied simply that, unfortunately, he had never read it himself. What an unforgettable gift was thereby bestowed, an opportunity for me to give him literary counsel! (And I do hope he eventually got to Nostromo, it has a panoramic vision that was his very cup of tea.)
Barzun wrote a library of books and articles, the last appearing only two years ago in the Wall Street Journal (arguing for a return of the ROTC to Columbia). Among those likely to be remembered longest was his final book, published when he was 93, an extended eulogy for Western civilization, both immensely learned and immensely readable. I suppose it was his sense of cultural grief that brought him to the NAS, on whose board of advisors he served from its inception to his death.
Until I met him for that lunch our entire communication had been by letter, mainly via the detailed commentary and corrections he made on drafts of NAS statements submitted to him in his advisory capacity – a role he took with the utmost seriousness. I was thrilled that this legendary scholar, embodying the most magisterial traditions of Western academe, would even take the time to reply, let alone do it in such a meticulous, responsive manner. And when he found some praise for my prose – it was, and remains, a blessing unsurpassed.
Barzun’s departure breaks a thread of historical memory (his own) that stretched from Belle Epoch to Oprah. My own first knowledge of him (I a wannabe intellectual of twelve or thirteen), was as Columbia dean and one of America’s foremost scholarly lights. That was, circa 1956 or 1957, a time much psychologically closer to an older age of embedded confidence than the present one of wastrel conceit. Finally losing such a connection, precious in itself, is a reminder of how much else has vanished without recall – a story Jacques Barzun understood and told so well.