A Stroll With William James and Jacques Barzun

“There are books…which take rank in our life with parents and lovers and passionate experiences.” – Emerson

With both excitement and regret, tonight I finished reading the final pages of Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James (Harper & Row, 1983).

Excitement, because this is easily the finest book I have read in years…and I tend to read a lot of books, almost all of them fine to excellent. Excitement also, because reading it has strengthened my longstanding – but so far unrealized – resolve to seek out more books (ideally, all of them!) written by and about William James.

The Jameses and their circle have long seemed to me to be the closest American counterpart of England’s Bloomsbury Group – whose books (and books about) I have managed to read many of. For example, Henry James’ novels – so far unread by me, although I’ve read not one but two novels about him – have been hovering around the middle of my “Books to Read” for years, and I dimly remember being impressed by the breadth of  his brother William’s genius when I first heard of him, back in my introductory college psychology courses. And this very afternoon, what book did some kind (and apparently kindred!) soul donate to my library but The Death and Letters of Alice James?

Barzun died last year at age 104; my learning about his death (and the memory of having, with pleasure, at some distant point in the past read – yea, even purchased –  Barzun’s The Modern Researcher) was the trigger for my searching out this book of his. Actually, when I began my search for a Barzun book last fall, any of them would have done:  A Stroll merely happened to be the first one I got hold of. Talk about a lucky choice! Barzun  was a lifelong admirer of James’ accomplishments, and his affection for James radiates from every page of this remarkably humane, wide-ranging, and exquisitely written tribute.

My regret at having finished A Stroll has to do with my realizing that, at age 64, there’s simply not enough time for me to read everything written by or about William James. (For starters, I want to track down whatever remarks were recorded at or about his funeral, and to find and enjoy James’ collected letters.) Added to the too-many-books-too-little-time problem is the additional sad fact that there is also not sufficient time to read all the rest of Barzun’s books! (He wrote several dozen, and if A Stroll is exemplary of his extraordinarily engaging writing style, every last one of them would be well worth reading. )

What I can do, however, I will do, and immediately. I am ordering my own copy of A Stroll with William James, so I can read it again – and so I can methodically scrutinize the citiations in Barzun’s numerous and intriguing footnotes. Also, as a particular treat for myself, the first book I plan to read after I retire next month will be another Barzun tome, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (Harper, 2001)I look forward to enjoying every one of its undoubtedly riveting 912 pages.

Although, like most readers, I could make a list of my favorite writers, there have been only a few literary rabbit-holes I’ve fallen into over the course of my reading life. My first Great Overwhelmingment was my high school era obsession with Thomas Wolfe. Decades later came a fortuitous discovery of Lawrence Durell’s novels (and nonfiction), and, even later, a mania for collecting all of Frederick Buechner’s nonfiction works. Soon thereafter came the Era of Reading All Things Oscar Wilde, followed by (or was it preceded by?) my still-ongoing passion for the lives and works of the Bloomsberries.

My plans to – with some trepidation – immerse myself, post-retirement, in the novels of, first, Henry James, and then on to the imagined pinnacle of Proust will now have to wait a later turn. For now and for some time into the future, for Calvin’s reading it’s got to be more William James and/or Jacques Barzun. (Neither William nor Jacques wrote novels, although they are such fine prose stylists that they might have tried their hands at it: reading either of them is every bit as pleasurable as reading a well-wrought novel.)

Somehow I feel, with this rediscovery of both James (William, I mean) and Barzun, my reading life has taken an unexpected and radically enriching turn. The beliefs and values and writing styles of both these men somehow speak directly to so many of my longstanding personal preoccupations. Dismayed at how much more of their work I’ve yet to read, I feel immensely lucky that each of them wrote so much for me to read! Which reminds me of another bookish quotation:

“Literature can shake our lives to the core. Our life can turn around corners by simply reading words on a page….Literature remains the only medium that gets directly inside our interior life.” – John Barth


6 thoughts on “A Stroll With William James and Jacques Barzun

  1. You have me smiling again: a month or two ago I read Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce by Sylvia Jukes Morris. The sequel is due out this year, though I don’t know whether I care to follow Clare into her later years. Good biographer.

    Barzun preface headed your way in a moment.

  2. I envy your retirement and resulting freedom to read as much as you please. Barzun’s Stroll sent me on a run through all the William James I could buy. JB also had an early hand in the Henry James revival, even introducing Lionel Trilling to “the Master.” I look forward to reading your response to From Dawn to Decadence. The book that first stirred my enthusiasm for Barzun was Classic, Romantic, and Modern. Depending upon your interests – history, art, music, criticism, etc., etc., etc. (we’re talking about Barzun’s enormous range, after all) – there are several other of his works that I’d recommend. Ah, to be reading Barzun for the first time again …

    1. I am really looking forward to reading more of Barzun…if I ever finish Dawn to Decadence! (Thank goodness I have retired, or I’d probably not finish it until sometime in 2014! Actually, I’m taking it (along with two of the other books listed in my blog’s sidebar’s accurately labeled “Constant Reader” section) to read this weekend in one of my frequent trips to a cabin in north Georgia, where there are fewer distractions from reading! Your enthusiasm for Classic, Romantic, and Modern makes me want to consider reading that ahead of what was otherwise going to be my next Barzun adventure, Murray’s A Jacques Barzun Reader (which, along with a hardback of the A Stroll with William James I bought at a library book sale a few weeks ago to add to the paperback I’d already bought and that i will now give away to some lucky friend, presumably does include excerpts from CR and M?).

      If you loved CR and M, you might also like a similar-sounding book I’ve recently finished entitled The First Moderns (1977) by William R. Everdell. Barzun’s a better writer, but Everdell is pretty good too, although of course his book is devoted only to the Modern(s). (There’s a mini-review of Everdell’s book in the sidebar to my blog: just scroll down until you spot it.)

      In any case, I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to know there is another Barzun fan Out There (wherever you are). It hurts my heart that more people don’t know about his work. Although he’s hardly obscure, very few people I happen to know seem to remember his books…and, as we know, he wrote so many that should be remembered and (re)read!

      1. A cabin with books … sounds perfect. Everdell’s First Moderns does look good. Thanks for the lead.

        Michael Murray did a fabulous job of editing the JB Reader. MM’s knowledge of music and French allowed him to follow Barzun’s thought and career in a way that other biographers would not. Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind begins with his birth into the very cradle of Modernism just outside Paris.

        Barzun seldom writes about himself, but there is an important glimpse provided in an excellent sampling of his work as critic, The Energies of Art (the decaying 1962 Vintage paperback is best because of its “new” Preface). Reading the authors he writes about in Energies yields the pleasure of variety and advanced lessons in the art of reading.

        The cultural criticism that Barzun blends into his history includes so many judgments – of aesthetics, morals, and reputations – that argument is inevitable, and for many fatiguing. He would not be content to relate simple histories, but always exercised the critic’s prerogative, striving to influence the outcome.

        Your site just joined two others bookmarked under a tab that opens them all at once, so I’ll see you again. Send me an email if you like and I’ll reply with a copy of the Vintage preface.

      2. What you write about Barzun’s inserting so many of his judgments about the people, places, things, or concepts he’s explaining or describing put me in mind of the pleasures I’m garnering from another book I happen to be in the middle of reading: The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (1986) by Leo Braudy, who, co-incidentally, divides his treatment of that subject into Classical, Romantic, and Modern sections.

  3. I have never read any James novels. Read bit of his philosophical writings. Glad you wrote this. I need to take a look. I remember liking what he had to say but why – who knows at this point?

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