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The Writing Life

A Talk Between Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Jacques Barzun

May 21, 2000|MARK LaFLAUR | Mark LaFlaur is a writer and editor living in New Orleans, where he is at work on a novel

It is difficult now to imagine an age when a weekly newsmagazine would print a cover story on "America and the Intellectual," illustrated with 13 commissioned photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt. The magazine was Time, the date was June 11, 1956, and the cover illustration was of a handsome, dignified man of 48 looking toward a lighted lamp of learning, the kind seen on college rings. Although more famous men (alas, they were all men) discussed in the article could have been shown on the cover (J. Robert Oppenheimer, for instance, or Frank Lloyd Wright), it was Jacques Barzun of Columbia University whom the editors chose to lead the piece, subtitled "The Reconciliation." Education editor Bruce Barton Jr. found in Barzun an affectionate (though not uncritical) relationship between a thinker and his adopted country--indeed, one of Barzun's best-selling books, published in 1954, was titled "God's Country and Mine"--and, no less important in those days, an intellectual who had never been much interested in communism.

The publication 44 years later of Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence" is a remarkable occasion on several counts, among the most noteworthy of which is that, although it is the crowning work of a 92-year-old author with more than 30 titles in print, it has been taking shape in his mind for more than six decades. A cultural history of the last 500 years, a historical era from its birth to its dissolution--published in the closing months of a millennium might strike some as conveniently timed.

"From Dawn to Decadence" has been long in coming; indeed, this work has passed through probably one of the longest gestations ever, for in the early 1930s Barzun (in his 20s) was already planning a large cultural history of the West, but he didn't begin writing it until 1992. As a Columbia doctoral candidate, he was in Paris for research on his dissertation when an elderly librarian at the Bibliotheque Nationale, a friend of Barzun's father and an accomplished author, advised the young historian that a great survey must be done not at the beginning of one's career but toward the end. The reason is that when a writer is young, his ideas tend to be derivative and half-baked, and his head half-empty, compared to the learning he will have acquired by his later years.

Barzun put off writing the big book until later and looked upon his other books as "preliminary studies, like sketches for a great mural." The preliminary studies include such highly regarded works as "Romanticism and the Modern Ego" (1943), his best-selling "Teacher in America" (1945), "The House of Intellect" (1959) and "The American University" (1968). He oversaw the completion of Wilson Follett's "Modern American Usage" (1966), has translated numerous works from the French and has written, edited and collaborated on such varied subjects as romanticism, music, teaching, language, science, race and crime fiction.

Born in the artistic community of L'Abbaye de Creteil near Paris in 1907, Jacques Martin Barzun is the son of Henri Martin Barzun, a writer and diplomat, and Anna-Rose Barzun. He was educated at the Lycee Janson de Suilly, Paris, and taught his first class at the age of 9, when the trench warfare of the Great War was taking all available young men. ("All I remember about it," he recalls in "Teacher in America," "is that it had to do with arithmetic and that the room seemed filled with thousands of very small children in black aprons.") Before the war, Barzun had enjoyed a happy childhood in the company of some of the greatest artists of the Cubist Decade. Growing up in a "nursery of living culture," he sat in the studio while Albert Gleizes painted his mother's portrait, played in the garden while his father discussed modern art with Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon and was bounced on the knee of Guillaume Apollinaire while the poet amused him with stories. "Every Saturday and sometimes oftener," Barzun writes in "The Energies of Art" (1956), "the stage [at home] was full: Marinetti acting and shouting, Archipenko making Leger roar with laughter, Delaunay and Ozenfant debating, Paul Fort declaiming his ballads, Varese or Florent Schmitt surrounded at the piano. . . . On view at close range were also: Ezra Pound, Cocteau . . . Kandinsky . . . Brancusi. . . ." As he has written elsewhere, growing up in that artistic milieu, it was his early impression that "making works of art by exerting genius was the usual occupation of adults. . . . The joy of being was the joy of being there; the zest for life was tied to the spectacle of good things being done with confident energy." This was before August 1914.

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