Roger Kimball writes: James F. Penrose, a close friend and for many years the secretary of the board that governs The New Criterion, died at the end of May, too late for me to commemorate his passing in our June issue.
I first met James in the early 1990s. My wife-to-be worked with him back then helping to keep the wheels of commerce rolling smoothly and in accordance with the law. My first book, Tenured Radicals, was still causing palpitations among the protected species it describes. It appealed to the heterodox in James. I became a person of interest, and, my identity “unmasked,” a drink was duly arranged. That was the first of approximately 87,576 drinks that we shared all around New York, Connecticut, London, and elsewhere.
James was a lawyer by profession, but then so was Oliver Wendell Holmes. So was James Fitzjames Stephen. So was Cicero. Like Whitman (in this one respect only, it should be said), James was large, he contained multitudes. The law by no means exhausted or even occupied a particularly prominent place in his interests. Before he started up the cursus honorum of the legal profession, James had been pondering a career as a scholar of Sanskrit and other recondite languages. He was at that time studying in Cambridge, England, where he met Carolyn, his future wife. Being clever at math, he soon worked out that the English definition of “Sanskrit scholar” is “penurious.” He shelved the Bhagavad Gita and wended his way to Columbia University for law school.
James worked hard at being a lawyer, first at various firms in Paris and New York, and then at the credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s. I well remember the first time he tried to explain to me the importance of rating debt (speaking of lubrication for the wheels of commerce). I never really understood it, but it didn’t matter, for James’s ruling passions—writing, music, and writing about music—became among our chief bonds.
I say that writing was James’s ruling passion. That is not quite right. Writing was the result of his ruling passion, which was human eccentricity and folly. I don’t remember whether we ever spoke about the Roman playwright Terence, but I know James would have nodded approvingly at Terence’s famous declaration that “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” “I am a man and I know nothing human is alien to me.”
James was a connoisseur of the odd, outré, eldritch, and bizarre. Among the first of his essays I read was one titled “Some Like it Hot.” It was a history of the electric chair, full of fun facts about the unpleasant action of alternating current on the tissues of animal organisms. An abbreviated version was eventually published, but under another, more anodyne title and absent its epigraph: “Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?”
James began writing for many publications, including The American Scholar back when the great Joseph Epstein was the editor and the magazine was worth reading. He also wrote for The Wall Street Journal and, I am happy to say, for The New Criterion, to which he contributed more than three dozen articles.
Music, as I mentioned, was at the center of James’s interests. He was a reasonably accomplished pianist, and dinner parties chez Penrose often included performances by guests. Like most critics, he wrote concert reviews, but he really came into his own when investigating the story behind the story that brought the music into the world. Composers are an odd lot (like, if truth be told, all the other lots on offer in the human panoply). James tracked down and lovingly described some of the oddest oddities.
One of my favorite of his essays concerned Mozart. Well, it concerned the chap we all mention when talking about Mozart but about whom, I’d wager, very few of us know anything: Ludwig Alois Friedrich Ritter von Köchel (1800–77), the Austrian musicologist, composer, mineralogist, botanist, and publisher. In his early adulthood, Köchel was sufficiently distinguished a botanist that several species were named for him, including Bupleurum koechelii, an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine. But posterity knows him as the man who, in the decades following the composer’s death, organized, tabulated, arranged, and numbered the sprawling, untidy agglomeration that was Mozart’s published work. His Chronologisch-thematisches Verzeichnis sämtlicher Tonwerke Wolfgang Amadé Mozarts was first published in 1862. The tome—later editions ran to a thousand pages—is a monument to the taxonomist’s art. Even today, no one mentions a work by Mozart without minuting its “K.” (for Köchel-Verzeichnis, Köchel-Catalog). “Mozart’s Linnaeus,” published in The New Criterion of October 2007, is pure Penrose: informative, entertaining, curious, and delightful.
James wrote about many familiar giants—Berlioz, Rossini, Beethoven, and Wagner, for example—but took particular pleasure in shining light upon once famous but now forgotten figures. One such was Charles Valentin Alkan (1813–88), the French composer and piano virtuoso who passed but briefly through the spotlight of celebrity. Alkan’s music, James writes,
generates the most remarkable sensation in his listeners that they have just smelled, or, more precisely, thought that they smelled some deep, smoking thing. The effect of this marvelous writing arrests even a present-day listener; the sadness, the demonism, the omnipresent foreboding, the palpably sinister all gleam darkly through the rush of sound.
Check it out. Then turn to our issue of May 1993 for “The strange case of Charles Valentin Alkan.”
James also wrote about various critics—the American Virgil Thomson (1896–1989), for example, the Englishman Donald Francis Tovey (1875–1940), and the important diarist George Templeton Strong (1820–75), who had much to say about the often rackety musical life of nineteenth-century New York. James also penned several essays about aspects of that strangest of modern oddities, the French Revolution. One of his last was “Revolutionary characters” (March 2021), which discusses various libertine aristocrats on the eve of the revolution and dour, indeed homicidal, revolutionaries such as Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just. “A nation,” said Robespierre’s fellow enthusiast, “can only be regenerated on a pile of corpses.” James commented accurately that this was “a sentiment faithfully followed by subsequent visionaries.”
For the last decade or more of his life, James lived in London and Paris, overseeing all that debt-rating I mentioned earlier. He also devoted himself to strenuous physical exercise. When I first met him, he was an avid runner, with many marathons, double marathons, iron-man competitions, and the like to his credit. Unfortunately, God had given him only two knees, and at some point they undertook a definitive labor action. Henceforth running was out of the running. Enter long-distance swimming. James swam the English Channel. He swam around Manhattan Island. He swam in the Sea of Japan, the Irish Sea, and across Long Island Sound and Lake George. It was a remarkable series of achievements.
James was not able to visit New York much in his last years. But he made a point of stopping by whenever he was in town. I often joined him for dinner or at least an improving libation during his visits. He battled as furiously against the pancreatic cancer that finally killed him as he did in his marathons and marathon swims. He was just seventy, the human allotment stipulated by the Bible but nowadays an age that seems like that mezzo del cammin di nostra vita that Dante mentions. RIP.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 1, on page 2
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