Friday, July 27, 2007

Toledano Remembers

Ralph de Toledano ’38 (Obituaries, May/June) was on campus in 2006 for the first time in 50 years. He came from Washington, D.C., to appear on a panel of editors at the Columbia Review reunion on March 11, 2006. Speaking to about 120 alumni and students gathered in Low Library’s stately Faculty Room, all of them associated with the College’s long-lived literary magazine, de Toledano said: “I guess the time I was at Columbia most of you would consider the Dark Ages. I was Class of ’38. But it was a very, very exciting time at Columbia. We had Herman Wouk ’34, we had Robert Giroux ’36, we had Robert Paul Smith [’36], we had John Treville LaTouche, who moved on to Broadway doing musicals. And the College itself was very exciting. Think of it: Senior Colloquium, which was the most exciting course I took at Columbia, was headed by Lionel Trilling [’25] and Jacques Barzun ’27, and when they began arguing with each other, the sparks would fly. It was really tremendous.

“As far as the Columbia Review is concerned, we had some very notable issues. It was a practice then to have a professor review every issue of every publication, and so the magazines were an integral part of the College. What was most important is that we reflected the times and the times were exciting times, exciting in many ways. It was the time of the Spanish Civil War, which struck me very deeply because I had family on both sides. It was just stimulating, there were wonderful people, wonderful professors — Mark Van Doren, Trilling, Barzun — and those were all in my field.”

— from Les Gottesman, Letters to the Editor, Columbia College Today, July / August 2007.

See also:

Toledano and Smith

De Toledano Papers (1940–71)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Clifton Fadiman on God’s Country and Mine

From American Panorama, edited by Eric Larrabee (New York: New York University Press, 1957):

God’s Country and Mine by Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun subtitles his book: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words. That is a fair enough summary, though naturally it omits any indication that the declaration is continuously witty and winning.

The main problem in writing about the United States is not that of being interesting. The main problem is to say something that will still be true a few years or ten or fifty after the words are first set down. The United States has a way of confounding its commentators, not by disproving them, but by dating them. We know that de Tocqueville alone has met this test with an almost absolute triumph; and many admirers of Mr. Barzun will wager that, though this work is hardly on a de Tocquevillean scale, what it has to say will bear reflection for years to come.

Mr. Barzun’s master is William James. His is the Jamesian cheerful pragmatic gaze, concerned with what is actually there and what actually seems to be working. He likes the United States because it is a pluralistic universe, in continuous process of change, open-ended, open-handed, crammed with choices, many of them silly, many of them noble. He is not fooled by the European café-society denigration of the American culture; he is too good a European for that. Nor does he assume that the good life has reached its fulfillment here; he is too good an American for that. He is balanced without being a compromiser; and, though amiably merciless in seeking out weaknesses, he keeps always in mind that many of them are the ubiquitous weaknesses of twentieth-century industrial man.

Whether he touches on baseball or advertising, Kinsey or children, doctors or intellectuals, the pressure of the machine or the deification of teamwork, our popular culture (which he thinks Germanic) or our highbrow culture (which he thinks French), he is always sane, humane, and never limited by the blinders of conventional judgment. What gives his book the wonderful quality of lift is his central conviction that “the man of ideas is rising among us as a power: that is why he is being attacked.” As an intellectual’s graceful but never superficial survey of mid-century America, this book may be recommended virtually without qualification.

C. F.

With permission of Anne Fadiman

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Warren Boroson

From Information to Aspiration

As a youngster I was determined to be judged Very Smart, so I bought a used copy of an Information Please Almanac, and first encountered the name of Jacques Barzun. . . .

See also: Warren Boroson, Author and Journalist and Mr. Boroson’s blog OBITERDICTA.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Gordon Rumson


I am planning an event here in Calgary (where?), Alberta for November 30 to mark Dr. Barzun's birthday.

It will be a musical event, with some readings (still to be selected -- and approved for permission) from Dr. Barzun's writings.

Here is some of the repertoire that will be performed:

Overture from "Escape to Egypt" by H. Berlioz transcribed by Balakierv

The complete Piano Music of Hector Berlioz (Rustic Serenade, Hymne and Toccata)

4 Studies from a 20th century Music Diary by Ronald Stevenson (On BACH, on the 12-note series in Mozart's Don Giovanni, On "Evocation" from Berlioz Faust, On the Introduction to Busoni's Arlechinno).

Fantasy (1994) by Rumson, which is dedicated to Dr. Barzun.

"Forbearance" after Emerson by Wallace DePue.

This last will be sung by Caroline Horne, mezzo.

Other musical selections may be added as I have hope to arrange a flautist to perform. It occurs to me that a work by Telemann might be very much appreciated. But I don't know what Dr. Barzun thinks of Telemann! Any comments welcome on that score.

Also, if anyone might suggest another work, or composer that MUST be represented, I'd appreciate the advice. I thought of Harry Partch, but I don't have those musical instruments.

All best wishes,

Gordon Rumson
pianist, composer
July 14, 2007

See The Glorious Entertainment.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In Blogs

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Best Puns

Some 20 years ago, I conducted a poll of a bunch of literary people — among them, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, writer Cleveland Amory, critic John Ciardi and historian Jacques Barzun.

The question I asked: Which are the best puns in the English language?

— Warren Boroson, Best Puns


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Histories as Visions of the Past

[The historian] describes historical events. And if he is a true historian, he describes them as accurately as they can be described on the strength of the available record. But he was not there. He did not see these events with his own eyes; or if he was there and did see them, then what we are talking about is journalism or autobiography but not history. And not having been there and not having seen them, what does he have to start with when he envisages these events and portrays them for us? He has, as a rule, only the hieroglyphics of the written word as preserved in crumbling only documents, and sometimes a few artifacts that have survived the ravages of time and neglect — perhaps even a portrait or a drawing or, if he works in recent history, a photograph or two. But these evidence only hint at the real story — they don’t tell it. It is up to the historian to examine them critically and imaginatively, to select among them (for they are often multitudinous in number), to try to penetrate the reality behind them, and to try to depict them in a way that reveals their meaning. And to accomplish this task, what does he have to draw upon? Only what he already has within him: his knowledge, of course, of the historical background, his level of cultural sensitivity, his ability to put the isolated bit of evidence into the larger context, and, above all, his capacity for insight and empathy, his ability to identify with the historical figures he describes, his educated instinct for what is significant and what is not — in other words, his creative imagination.

What emerges from this scrutiny is something that is, of necessity, highly subjective. It is not, and cannot be, the absolute and total truth. It is, if the writer is a conscientious historian, as close to the truth as he can possibly make it. But it remains a vision of the past — not the past in its pure form (no one could ever recreate that) but the past as one man, and one man alone, is capable of envisaging it, of depicting it. It is perceived reality — reality in the eyes of the beholder — the only kind of reality that can have meaning for us other human beings and be useful to us. This is why every work of history — at least of narrative or explanatory history — is at least as revealing of the man who wrote it and the period in which it was written as it is of the people it portrays and the epoque in which they lived.

— George F. Kennan, At a Century’s Ending, New York, 1996, 303–304.

. . . William James concluded after reflection that philosophers do not give us transcripts but visions of the world. Similarly, historians give visions of the past. The good ones are not merely plausible; they rest on a solid base of facts that nobody disputes. There is nothing personal about facts, but there is about choosing and grouping them. It is by the patterning and the meanings ascribed that the vision is conveyed. And this, if anything, is what each historian adds to the general understanding. Read more than one historian and the chances are that you will come closer and closer to the full complexity. Whoever wants an absolute copy of what happened must gain access to the mind of God.
— Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, New York, 2000, x–xi.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Robert K. Wallace

A 100th Birthday Tribute to Jacques Barzun

I never had a class from Jacques Barzun, yet he has been my most influential teacher and mentor. . . .