Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Charles to Jacques Barzun

A touching and illuminating epistolary tribute from Charles Barzun to his grandfather Jacques, the formidable and prolific intellectual and cultural historian who died late in 2012. There is all kinds of material of interest in there, so I reproduce here only a few choice selections.

First, on what was lacking in other tributes to his grandfather:

And yet somehow, for all the words spent on your achievements, I still felt as though the tributes had missed something. What they failed to capture was the way in which you used the written word not only to define and distill cultures past and present, but also to reach out, to lift up, and—for lack of a better phrase—to establish a human connection. This may sound odd, coming from your grandson, but the feeling of intense loss I experienced was the loss of a bond that had developed almost entirely through the letters we exchanged.

As Charles matured, Jacques began to treat him as such: he was not simply an encourager, but also a critic of Charles’ writing:

Unfortunately, your comments on my work were rarely ever again so favorable. As I grew older, you must have suspected—correctly, I suppose—that I required less coddling and more instruction. Your letters eventually assumed an air of egalitarian respect, which is not to say they lacked for affection. I took your corrections in stride because I knew that as a teacher, editor, and expert on both French and English grammar, you could not help but offer helpful syntactic suggestions. And later when I learned that you were famous among a distinguished coterie of authors and former students for your numerous and amazingly detailed marginal notes, I felt proud to be in their company.


“Dear Charles,” the next letter (sent three days later) began, “I have come to believe that you sent me the first draft of your paper, in which you set down in the roughest sort of order the ideas you wanted to take up, without bothering about diction, grammar, syntax, and least of all fluidity or elegance.” My tendency to repeat the names of authors, which could “narcotize the reader,” was only slightly less egregious than my sloppy use of “premise,” “concept,” “maxim,” and “axiom,” all of which “have definite meanings that should not be thrown around freely.” Ever the teacher, though, you closed with a note of encouragement: “Charles: I am sure you can do a brilliant study.

When Charles decided to pursue teaching, Jacques had some sartorial and crinal 1 advice for him:

But you insisted that I must be sure to look the part: “It is my spontaneous judgment that on this score you could improve what you present to the world,” you wrote as I approached graduation from law school. Wear a coat and tie, you advised—and cut your hair: “Its abundance without shape on top and thick uneven length down your neck do not give your features the proper frame. They blur your power and seriousness of thought and tend to reinforce the college-boy image.”

And on love:

“Remains the enigma of love. The first and perhaps only settled principle is that love and being in love are different emotions. The test of the difference is this: Love includes liking; being in love does not, though the pair in that condition are not aware of their dislike (or mutual indifference) till too late. Their quarrels might alert them, but usually don’t.”

  1. A wonderful adjective, now rare, unknown to me until today. The Oxford English Dictionary has an absolutely sublime example from the Sunday Times in January, 1997: “His impressive brain is surmounted by the strangest topiary, a rare surviving example of 1960s crinal baroque.”

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.