Here’s a passage from a thoughtful post on the late Jacques Barzun by that fine critic Michael Dirda:
When I first began to work as an editor at The Washington Post Book World back in the late 1970s, it was my habit to call up elderly writers and scholars and ask them to review for me. My secret reason for this was simply to connect, however briefly, through letter, telephone call, or handshake, with these eminent men and women, but also with the great writers who had been their friends and associates. Favorite authors like Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, W. H. Auden, and Evelyn Waugh were already dead, but I could reach out to Malcolm Cowley, Peter Quennell, Eleanor Clark, Rex Warner, Stephen Spender, Sir Harold Acton, Sir John Pope-Hennessy, Douglas Bush, and many others. Once a retired Boston University professor reviewed two books about T. E. Lawrence, with whom he had done brass rubbings while they were both undergraduates at Oxford. Warren Ault wrote the review at age 102.
These days I occasionally correspond with the great Dostoevsky biographer and critic, and former Princeton and Stanford professor, Joseph Frank, who is in his mid-90s. Just this year, he too brought out a new book, Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture. It includes essays on, among others, Paul Valéry, André Malraux, Ernst Juenger, T. S. Eliot, and two of his former colleagues, the critic R. P. Blackmur (of Princeton) and the pioneering scholar of the novel Ian Watt (of Stanford).
Figures like Jacques Barzun — and Abrams, Aaron, and Frank — seem to me the last representatives of a traditional literary scholarship that is now out of fashion. To this group, one might include a few octogenarians, such as Abrams’s former student Harold Bloom and the comparatist and Bible translator Robert Alter. No doubt there are others I am overlooking. But these academic eminences have all worked hard to become truly learned, and their scholarship is vitalized by a deep knowledge of, and serious engagement with, the great works of the past. Until last week, Jacques Barzun was the oldest, and one of the best, of these living cultural treasures.
Good for Dirda! I’m going to say more in another post about why I think his practice of soliciting reviews from older, retired scholars is a valuable one that should be imitated — and about why I think that’s unlikely — but for now, just one related thought:
A couple of Sundays ago I was up early and driving to a nearby coffee shop to pick up morning treats for my family, and had the radio tuned to ESPN. A guy named John Kincade was on, telling stories about Beano Cook, the college football commentator who had just died at the age of 81. Kincade praised Cook for his affability and willingness to be interviewed on pretty much any subject imaginable, but his comments carried an inadvertent poignancy: it became clear that Cook missed his former prominence at ESPN, and was eager to take any chance to speak on-air, even on an early-morning weekend radio show. He would call from time to time, Kincade reported, to ask “Do you need me?”
Do you need me? A sad question. When I read Michael Dirda’s account of soliciting reviews from older scholars, it occurred to me that many of them were probably quite grateful to be asked. They had at one time been princes and lords of their discipline, feared and admired in various measures, sought after. Then, gradually or suddenly, their world became much quieter; invitations to write or to speak slacked off. Some, surely, found their new peaceable life welcome; but for many it had to have been a difficult adjustment. I have never been, and never will be, especially well-known or much sought-after, but I’ll experience in my own small way that fading from the scene. I wonder when it’ll start to happen; and I wonder how I’ll respond when it does.