Thursday, December 28, 2006

Toledano and Smith

Thank you for Tom Vinciguerra ’85’s fine tribute to Jacques Barzun ’27 [January], his contributions to scholarship and his academic and intellectual achievements.

I would have added only a greater recognition of his greatness as a teacher in a university that has across many decades been distinguished for its faculty. Of my years at Columbia, I can hold in esteem and look back with nostalgia at professors such as Raymond Weaver (Class of 1910) and Irwin Edman ’16. But what has lived most glowingly with me has been the impact of the honors course, Senior Colloquium, presided over by Barzun and Lionel Trilling ’25.

For Barzun, teaching itself was a discipline, unbuttoning the denotations and connotations of the literature, philosophy and history of the great works that we discussed. As a teacher and an individual, Barzun carried with him an abiding wit (his books and articles are full of it), a love of the pun, an interest in writers as diverse as the 18th century’s Restif de la Bretonne and the 20th’s Raymond Chandler, a disdain for false scholarship and a zest for the precise life of the mind. Teacher in my undergraduate days and since then friend, he was what generations of his students have acknowledged: in lumine tuo videbimus lumen.

Ralph de Toledano ’38
Washington, D.C.

In the profile of Jacques Barzun ’27, the author cites Edward Rothstein’s characterization of cultural history as not just “tracing a philosophical idea through time, but seeing how that idea is woven into a cultural fabric.” That is true enough, but it fails to highlight the revolution involved. The cultural history Barzun championed and taught for so long owed its origin to historian GM Trevelyan, who at the turn of the last century challenged the prevailing idea that history must be confined to the record of nations and empires, parliaments and congresses, diplomacy and way. He insisted, instead, that history should become the narrative of what people ate and drank, the homes they lived in, the cities they built, the arts they created, the books they read, the entertainments and recreations they engaged in, the beliefs they lived by, the scientific discoveries they made — in short, the entire gamut of human experience, the substance of culture and civilization. Barzun was a master of this approach; witness his course “The Nineteenth Century.”

John E. Smith ’42
Clark Professor Emeritus of
Philosophy, Yale
Hamden, Conn.

Letters to the Editor, Columbia College Today, May/June 2006