The Chronicle Review

A Letter to My Grandfather

Courtesy of Charles Barzun

The author with his grandfather, Jacques Barzun, in 2003
May 13, 2013
A Letter to My Grandfather

Justin Ide for The Chronicle Review

Charles Barzun with his grandfather's letters

Dear Grandfather,

Not long after your death on October 25 of last year, friends and relatives wondered whether I might write something about you. They knew that we had corresponded and that I regularly visited you in San Antonio, so they felt I should put something on record. But when I tried my hand at it, I found it impossible to convey my thoughts or feelings. It then occurred to me that the best way to write about you would be to write to you, as I did for so many years.

Naturally, I wasn't about to discuss your many accomplishments—the positions you held, the books you wrote—the obituaries and eulogies for the great Jacques Barzun took care of all that. You were touted as one of the last true public intellectuals: a cultural historian, a philosopher of education, an authority on the English language, a prophet of Western decline. The newspapers relished the fact that you were nearly 105 years old when you passed away.

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.

Long before we began to correspond, when I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Boston in the 1980s, I was dimly aware of your reputation. I knew that my friends' parents had heard of you, even though my friends had not. I knew that you lectured and wrote books and were a college professor, but I wasn't sure what you were a professor of. I knew that you grew up in France but that you spoke English as if you hadn't. All this I knew, yet I didn't really know you. Sure, on our occasional visits to see you in New York you would ask my siblings and me questions about school and listen intently to our responses. And on our birthdays, carefully chosen items—a finger-size rubber soldier, a small box to put the soldier in, a shoehorn—would arrive by mail along with a short note. But that was as far as it went.

That all began to change when I was 13. My mother sent you an essay that I'd written on slavery, and you wrote to congratulate me on a job well done: "It is well organized, logical in argument, and written with lucidity and force. I am proud of your performance, quite as if I had had something to do with it, which of course I haven't." I found myself not only thrilled by your praise, but also suddenly very curious about your professional life. What was it exactly that you wrote about? Why were you famous?

So I wrote to you, asking to see your books. You started me off with a collection of short essays, The Culture We Deserve, and by my junior year in high school you were sending me your earlier, longer works on intellectual and cultural history. I was mesmerized. You somehow made otherwise abstract topics like "romanticism" and "materialism" seem pressingly important—so much so that in my senior year I wrote a paper entitled "A Stroll with Jacques Barzun." I sent it to you with no small amount of trepidation and was enormously relieved when you replied that you were pleased with how I'd characterized your "vision of the world."

Jacques Barzun's grandson continues their long conversion.

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.

When I sent you a draft of a paper I was writing in law school on the development of First Amendment doctrine, your response left me particularly deflated. "Your letters," you began, "are admirably written from every critical point of view ... but when you deal with subjects in the law, your technique seems to desert you." My prose evidently possessed a good many faults that you promised to address in your next letter.

"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."

A Letter to My Grandfather

Courtesy of Charles Barzun

The author with his grandfather, Jacques Barzun, in 2003

To someone else your tone might have seemed harsh or unduly formal, but I had grown accustomed to, and had come to appreciate, your bracing honesty and directness. I admired those qualities in your letters because they demonstrated that you were taking me seriously. Your approval of my decision to pursue a career of teaching and scholarship was gratifying for the same reason. Years earlier when I had expressed an interest in going into your line of work, you actually tried to dissuade me: "The conditions of that life in the present-day university are intolerable for anyone with a love of truth and a sense of honor." But a decade later, when as a law student I voiced a desire to study the history and philosophy of law, you were much more encouraging: "I can't tell you how glad I am that your plan of a career is pushing you in that direction. I think you're taking all the right steps."

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."

Our correspondence, however, was not simply one between a pupil and teacher. It also enabled me to ventilate my thoughts about whatever concerned me at the time. We discussed the Iraq war, the relative merits of business school, and the possibilities for online education. Once, I even asked for romantic advice. In my late 20s, when most of my friends began pairing off, I wondered why I hadn't yet done so. I inquired as to your views on marriage and love. Marriage, you stressed, requires common hopes and expectations: "If your bookishness strikes your soulmate as wimpish and her passion for nightclubs and dancing seems to you juvenile, it's best not to become one in civil and canon law." A good marriage, you wrote, depends on equal degrees of punctuality, orderliness, and thriftiness: "Some couples are very happy living always in debt, always being late, and finding leftover pizza under a sofa cushion." You then dealt with a trickier problem:

"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."

A Letter to My Grandfather

Columbia U. archives

Jacques Barzun, noted cultural historian, essayist, and educator, who died last fall

But most of all we discussed philosophy, and in particular its status as one of the "humanities." What had always captivated me about your books was your defense of a particular way of knowing, which Pascal called esprit de finesse and which you set in opposition to his esprit de geometrie. It was the kind of knowledge that could not be reduced to method and instead relied on intuitive judgment. The distinction formed the topics of many of your essays and is a recurring theme in your books, beginning with Classic, Romantic, and Modern; Darwin, Marx, Wagner; and Science: The Glorious Entertainment, as well as in your later, more personal A Stroll with William James. Reading and thinking about those books as an adolescent not only stimulated my interest in your life and thought, but also awakened in me a lifelong fascination with the nature of knowledge.

Our philosophical exchanges began when I was in high school. I wrote to you because parts of my chemistry text left me perplexed about the nature of scientific knowledge. In response, you offered what I would soon learn was a distinctively pragmatist account of the nature of truth:

"When we look at an apple, we think it is red and solid and absolutely still; whereas by way of science we may also consider it as full of whirling molecules and as not red at all, since it only reflects the light from the red portion of the spectrum instead of absorbing it, as does a green object. Both ways of looking at the thing are 'true,' since the commonsense apple could not be grown, bought, and eaten without our trusting the notions that science undercuts by substituting another set."

Years later we would debate whether Thomas Kuhn's philosophy of science was consistent with philosophical pragmatism, properly understood; what it meant to treat law "pragmatically"; and whether such contemporary philosophers as Charles Taylor and Hilary Putnam were adequate heirs to the tradition of William James and others.

But, as you no doubt recall, I was not always preoccupied with such highfalutin thoughts. In 1997 I had taken a job in San Francisco at an Internet media company. For a while I performed well enough as director of product development, but then in the winter of 2002 I wrote to you out of a genuine crisis of identity. The crisis had been partly brought on by the events of 9/11 and partly by my own discovery that I could not have cared less about my job. I had started reading philosophy again for the first time in years and wanted to tell you this: "More than anything," I wrote, "I am trying to find that which is true, permanent, and enduring in myself—to find or create (which is it?) my life philosophy of sorts. So much philosophical inquiry has been devoted to deducing or discerning that which is true, timeless, or eternal in the universe. For me, merely finding the eternal for me, in my lifetime, would be sufficient!"

I will never forget your response. You immediately demonstrated that you knew exactly what I meant. Such a "spiritual search," you reassured me, was not at all unusual for someone my age: "It really had been brewing for some time and the event that triggered your new awareness was certainly of a magnitude to justify the ensuing disarray. You may be assured that it is not damaging or permanent, but fruitful of good things." You then continued:

"When you have worked through it, by further reflection and some decision as to the immediate future it will turn into something like a path marked on a map, to be followed for a good while and possibly for the rest of your life. To put it another way, you will have made a Self, which is indeed a desirable possession. A Self is interesting to oneself and others, it acts as a sort of rudder in all the vicissitudes of life, and it thereby defines what used to be known as a career."

Even now I find it hard to describe the effect your words had on me. Suffice it to say that my life, or, more accurately, the way I lived it, took on a different cast. I became more conscious of what I was doing and why I was doing it. It finally struck me that I ought to spend more time thinking and reading about the questions that had long captured my attention. And it was your books and letters that raised those questions for me and stamped them with significance at an early age.

Rather than attempt to sum up your influence on me, let me recount an incident that occurred several years ago when I was interviewing for a teaching position at a law school in Ohio. A professor asked me the inevitable question about my name—"So, any relation?"—followed by further questions as to what that was like and whether you were an influence on me. "Let me put it this way," I said. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for him. He's why I do this."

Amazingly, you played such an immense role in my life almost entirely through your letters. They were just words, but they were words written with care and attention and with the thought of a particular individual in mind. It occurs to me that for much of your own lifetime, there was nothing unusual about writing letters on a regular basis. Now, of course, that seems like an antiquated craft. No one writes letters anymore, and that includes me, now that you are gone.

For that reason, it remains difficult for me to read your last letter to me, which is also the shortest:

February 10, 2007

Dear Charles:

I don't remember who owes a letter to whom. That's part of my present predicament: my mind is discarding its memory bit by bit—and my fingers are getting out of control. I'm afraid that our very pleasant and informative exchange of letters is winding down. Let me say that I'll watch for the opportunity to resume if by chance I recover tone and power.

Till then, my love to you as always,

Grandfather JB.

It was, in fact, I who owed you a letter, which I wrote on the very same day that you sent your last one to me. I continued to write to you, knowing that you could not respond because of the problem with your hands, but I didn't write as often as before, or as often as I now wish I had. Then again, everything I write that requires some degree of thought and reflection is a letter to you. So in that sense our conversation continues.


Your Grandson

Charles Barzun is an associate professor of law at the University of Virginia.