Interviewed by a Smart-Aleck Baboon

In the American Scholar, literary critic, essayist and screenwriter Arthur Krystal has written a memoir of his experiences with Jacques Barzun, his teacher and mentor at Columbia in the 1970s and later his friend and colleague. Among the numerous literary anecdotes, he includes this one about a visit Barzun made to Evelyn Waugh in December 1951:

Barzun had his disagreements with historians and writers (Leon Edel, for one, regarding something William James wrote), but I never came across a true vilifier except for Evelyn Waugh. In the winter of 1951, Life magazine sent Barzun to interview the novelist. Afterward, Waugh decided that Barzun had scotched his deal with the magazine: “Life had sent a smart-aleck down here,” he wrote to Graham Greene, “and that has ended my profitable connexion with them” (Feb. 27, 1952). Waugh’s diary entry reiterates the sentiment: “They sent me an apostate frog called professor Smart-Aleck Baboon. He stayed here and gave me a viva in history and reported all.” Which makes me wonder if Waugh’s pen was dipped in imperceptible acid when he wrote, “Dear Professor, I enjoyed our conversation so much last night. Do come again” (Dec. 18, 1951).

Barzun apparently never wrote up his version of the interview. The meeting arranged by Life was not intended for publication in the magazine but was more in the nature of setting up another project to follow Waugh’s article on the Holy Places that they had just published. I cannot find the quoted reference to Barzun as a “Smart-Aleck Baboon” but perhaps that was edited out of the published version of the Diaries.

Waugh may be correct that Barzun discouraged any further Waugh projects for publication by Life based on his 1951 meeting. According to Waugh’s follow-up letter to Barzun, they had discussed as a possible subject the Emperor Constantine.  In his letter, Waugh proposes Thomas More as an alternative. He also offers a second choice of Ignatius Loyola as a subject if that proved more appealing  (Letters, 361-62).

Waugh later describes a reception to which he was invited to view Life’s new London offices and notes that it did not go well. There was later an exchange of correspondence in 1954-55 about an article on St Francis of Assisi, but that broke down after Waugh demanded a substantial advance (Diaries, 715, 747-50; Mr Wu and Mrs Stitch,  213-17).

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