Jacques Martin Barzun (; November 30, 1907 – October 25, 2012) was a French-American historian known for his studies of the history of ideas
and cultural history
. He wrote about a wide range of subjects, including baseball, mystery novels, and classical music, and was also known as a philosopher of education
. In the book ''Teacher in America'' (1945), Barzun influenced the training of schoolteachers in the United States.
He published more than forty books, was awarded the American Presidential Medal of Freedom
, and was designated a knight of the French Legion of Honor
. The historical retrospective ''From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present
'' (2000), widely considered his ''magnum opus
'', was published when he was 93 years old.
Jacques Martin Barzun was born in Créteil
, France, to Henri-Martin and Anna-Rose Barzun, and spent his childhood in Paris
. His father was a member of the Abbaye de Créteil
group of artists and writers, and also worked in the French Ministry of Labor
His parents' Paris home was frequented by many modernist
artists of ''Belle Époque
'' France, such as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire
, the Cubist
painters Albert Gleizes
and Marcel Duchamp
, the composer Edgard Varèse
, and the writers Richard Aldington
and Stefan Zweig
While on a diplomatic mission to the United States during the First World War
(1914–1918), Barzun's father so liked the country he decided that his son should receive an American university education
; thus, the twelve-year-old Jacques Martin attended a university-preparatory school
and then Columbia University
, where he obtained a liberal arts education
As an undergraduate at Columbia College
, Barzun was drama critic for the ''Columbia Daily Spectator
'', a prize-winning president of the Philolexian Society
, the Columbia literary and debate club, and valedictorian
of the class of 1927. He obtained his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1932 and taught history there from 1928 to 1955, becoming the Seth Low
Professor of History and a founder of the discipline of cultural history
. For years, he and literary critic Lionel Trilling
conducted Columbia's famous Great Books
course. He was elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
From 1955 to 1968, he served as Dean of the Graduate School, Dean of Faculties, and Provost
, while also being an Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College
at the University of Cambridge
. From 1968 until his 1975 retirement, he was University Professor at Columbia. From 1951 to 1963 Barzun was one of the managing editors of The Readers' Subscription Book Club
, and its successor the Mid-Century Book Society
(the other managing editors being W. H. Auden
and Lionel Trilling
), and afterwards was Literary Adviser to Charles Scribner's Sons
, 1975 to 1993.
In 1936, Barzun married Mariana Lowell, a violinist from a prominent Boston family
. They had three children: James, Roger, and Isabel. Mariana died in 1979. In 1980, Barzun married Marguerite Lee Davenport. From 1996 the Barzuns lived in her hometown, San Antonio
. His granddaughter Lucy Barzun Donnelly
was a producer of the award-winning HBO
film ''Grey Gardens
''. His grandson, Matthew Barzun
, is a businessman who served from 2009-2011 as the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden
, and from 2013-2017 as Ambassador to the United Kingdom
. On May 14, 2012 Jacques Barzun attended a symphony performance in his honor at which works by his favorite composer, Hector Berlioz
, were performed. He attended in a wheelchair and delivered a brief address to the crowd.
Barzun died at his home in San Antonio
on October 25, 2012, aged 104. ''The New York Times
'', which compared him with such scholars as Sidney Hook
, Daniel Bell
, and Lionel Trilling
, called him a "distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history". Naming Edward Gibbon
, Jacob Burckhardt
and Thomas Babington Macaulay
as his intellectual ancestors, and calling him "one of the West's most eminent historians of culture" and "a champion of the liberal arts tradition in higher education," who "deplored what he called the 'gangrene of specialism'", ''The Daily Telegraph
'' remarked, "The sheer scope of his knowledge was extraordinary. Barzun's eye roamed over the full spectrum of Western music, art, literature and philosophy." Essayist Joseph Epstein
, remembering him in the ''Wall Street Journal
'' as a "flawless and magisterial" writer who tackled "Darwin
, William James
, French verse
, English prose
composition, university teaching, detective fiction
the state of intellectual life", described Barzun as a tall, handsome man with an understated elegance, thoroughly Americanized, but retaining an air of old-world culture, cosmopolitan in an elegant way rare for intellectuals".
Over seven decades, Barzun wrote and edited more than forty books touching on an unusually broad range of subjects, including science
from Robert Burton
through William James
to modern methods, and art
, and classical music
; he was one of the all-time authorities on Hector Berlioz
. Some of his books—particularly ''Teacher in America'' and ''The House of Intellect''—enjoyed a substantial lay readership and influenced debate about culture and education far beyond the realm of academic history. Barzun had a strong interest in the tools and mechanics of writing and research
. He undertook the task of completing, from a manuscript almost two-thirds of which was in first draft at the author's death, and editing (with the help of six other people), the first edition (published 1966) of ''Follett's Modern American Usage
''. Barzun was also the author of books on literary style
(''Simple and Direct'', 1975), on the crafts of editing
(''On Writing, Editing, and Publishing'', 1971), and on research methods
and the other humanities
(''The Modern Researcher'', which has seen at least six editions, and is one of the thousand most widely held library items according to the OCLC).
Barzun did not disdain popular culture: his varied interests included detective fiction
His widely quoted statement, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." was inscribed on a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame
. He edited and wrote the introduction to the 1961 anthology, ''The Delights of Detection'', which included stories by G. K. Chesterton
, Dorothy L. Sayers
, Rex Stout
, and others. In 1971, Barzun co-authored (with Wendell Hertig Taylor), ''A Catalogue of Crime
: Being a Reader's Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, & Related Genres'', for which he and his co-author received a Special Edgar Award
from the Mystery Writers of America
the following year. Barzun was also an advocate
of supernatural fiction
, and wrote the introduction to ''The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural
''. Barzun was a proponent of the theatre critic and diarist James Agate
, whom he compared in stature to Samuel Pepys
. Barzun edited Agate's last two diaries into a new edition in 1951 and wrote an informative introductory essay, "Agate and His Nine Egos".
175px|''From Dawn to Decadence'' by Jacques Barzun
Jacques Barzun continued to write on education and cultural history after retiring from Columbia. At 84 years of age, he began writing his swan song
, to which he devoted the better part of the 1990s. The resulting book of more than 800 pages, ''From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present'', revealed a vast erudition and brilliance undimmed by advanced age. Historians, literary critics, and popular reviewers all lauded ''From Dawn to Decadence'' as a sweeping and powerful survey of modern Western history, and it became a ''New York Times
'' bestseller. With this work he gained an international reputation. Reviewing it in the ''New York Times''
, historian William Everdell
called the book "a great achievement" by a scholar "undiminished in his scholarship, research and polymathic interests," while also scrutinizing Barzun's scant treatment of figures like Walt Whitman
and Karl Marx
The book introduces several novel typographic
devices that aid an unusually rich system of cross-referencing and help keep many strands of thought in the book under organized control. Most pages feature a sidebar
containing a pithy quotation, usually little known, and often surprising or humorous, from some author or historical figure. In 2007, Barzun commented that "Old age is like learning a new profession. And not one of your own choosing." As late as October 2011, one month before his 104th birthday, he reviewed Adam Kirsch
's ''Why Trilling Matters'' for the ''Wall Street Journal
In his philosophy of writing history, Barzun emphasized the role of storytelling over the use of academic jargon and detached analysis. He concluded in ''From Dawn to Decadence'' that "history cannot be a science; it is the very opposite, in that its interest resides in the particulars".
In 1968, Barzun received the St. Louis Literary Award
from the Saint Louis University
Library Associates. Barzun was appointed a Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honour
. In 2003, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
by President George W. Bush
In 1993, his book "An Essay on French Verse: For Readers of English Poetry" won the Poetry Society of America
's Melville Cane Poetry Award.
On October 18, 2007, he received the 59th Great Teacher Award of the Society of Columbia Graduates ''in absentia
On March 2, 2011, Barzun was awarded the 2010 National Humanities Medal
by President Barack Obama
, although he was not expected to be in attendance.
On April 16, 2011, he received the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement ''in absentia''.
The American Philosophical Society
honors Barzun with its Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History, awarded annually since 1993 to the author of a recent distinguished work of cultural history. He also received the Gold Medal for Criticism from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
, of which he was twice president.
*1927 ''Samplings and Chronicles: Being the Continuation of the Philolexian Society History, with Literary Selections from 1912 to 1927 '' (editor). Philolexian Society.
*1932 ''The French Race: Theories of Its Origins and Their Social and Political Implications''. P.S. King & Son.
*1937 ''Race: A Study in Modern Superstition'' (Revised, 1965 ''Race: A Study in Superstition''). Methuen & Co. Ltd.
*1939 ''Of Human Freedom''. Revised edition, Greenwood Press Reprint, 1977: .
*1941 ''Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage''. .
*1943 ''Romanticism and the Modern Ego''. Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1943.
*1945 ''Teacher in America''. Reprint Liberty Fund, 1981. .
*1950 ''Berlioz and the Romantic Century''. Boston: Little, Brown and Company / An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, 1950 vols.
*1951 ''Pleasures of Music: A Reader's Choice of Great Writing About Music and Musicians From Cellini to Bernard Shaw'' Viking Press.
*1954 ''God's Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love, Spiced with a Few Harsh Words''. Reprint Greenwood Press, 1973: .
*1956 ''Music in American Life''. Indiana University Press.
*1956 ''The Energies of Art: Studies of Authors, Classic and Modern''. Greenwood, .
*1959 ''The House of Intellect''. Reprint Harper Perennial, 2002: .
*1960 ''Lincoln the Literary Genius'' (first published in ''The Saturday Evening Post
'', February 14, 1959)
*1961 ''The Delights of Detection''. Criterion Books.
*1961 ''Classic, Romantic, and Modern''. Reprint University of Chicago Press, 1975: .
*1964 ''Science: The Glorious Entertainment''. HarperCollins. .
*1967 ''What Man Has Built'' (introductory booklet to the Great Ages of Man book series). Time Inc.
*1968 ''The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going''. Reprint University of Chicago Press, 1993: .
*1969 ''Berlioz and the Romantic Century'' (3d ed.).
*1971 ''On Writing, Editing, and Publishing''. University of Chicago Press.
*1971 ''A Catalogue of Crime: Being a Reader's Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, and Related Genres
'' (with Wendell Hertig Taylor). Revised edition, Harper & Row, 1989: .
*1974 ''Clio and the Doctors''. Reprinted University of Chicago Press, 1993: .
*1974 ''The Use and Abuse of Art'' (A. W. Mellon Lectures
in the Fine Arts) . Princeton University Press. .
*1975 ''Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers''. 4th ed, Harper Perennial, 2001: .
*1976 ''The Bibliophile of the Future: His Complaints about the Twentieth Century'' (Maury A. Bromsen lecture in humanistic bibliography). Boston Public Library. .
*1980 ''Three Talks at Northern Kentucky University''. Northern Kentucky University, Dept. of Literature and Language.
*1982 ''Lincoln's Philosophic Vision''. Artichokes Creative Studios.
*1982 ''Critical Questions: On Music and Letters, Culture and Biography, 1940–1980'' (edited by Bea Friedland). University of Chicago Press. .
*1982 ''Berlioz and His Century: An Introduction to the Age of Romanticism'' (Abridgment of ''Berlioz and the Romantic Century''). University of Chicago Press. .
*1983 ''A Stroll with William James''. Reprint University of Chicago Press, 2002: .
*1986 ''A Word or Two Before You Go: Brief Essays on Language''. Wesleyan University.
*1989 ''The Culture We Deserve: A Critique of Disenlightenment''. Wesleyan University. .
*1991 ''An Essay on French Verse: For Readers of English Poetry''. New Directions Publishing. .
*1991 ''Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning''. University of Chicago Press. .
*2000 ''From Dawn to Decadence
: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present''. .
*2001 ''Sidelights on Opera at Glimmerglass''. Glimmerglass Opera
*2002 ''A Jacques Barzun Reader''. .
*2002 ''What Is a School? and Trim the College!'' (''What Is a School? An Institution in Limbo, Trim the College! A Utopia''). Hudson Institute.
*2003 ''The Modern Researcher'' (6th ed.) (with Henry F. Graff). Wadsworth Publishing. .
*2004 ''Four More Sidelights on Opera at Glimmerglass: 2001–2004''
*List of American philosophers
*''Art at Our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists'' featuring Jacques Barzun. Edited by Nan Cuba and Riley Robinson (Trinity University Press
*Arthur KrystalExcept When I Write
Oxford University Press, 2011), has a chapter on Barzun.
*Michael Murray''Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind''
(Frederic C. Beil, 2011), authorized biography.
*Thomas Vinciguerra, "Jacques Barzun '27: Columbia Avatar", Columbia College Today, January 2006
*Helen Hazen"Endless Rewriting"
''The American Scholar'', Spring 2013. On being edited by Barzun.
website, including tributes
devoted to writings about Barzun, including interviews
,Barzun on the West
" ''New Criterion'', June 18, 2000Society of Columbia Graduates 2007 Great Teacher Award presented to Jacques Barzun
includes speeches by Henry F. Graff, William Theodore de Bary, Alan Brinkley
, and othersJacques Barzun
Video shown at the 2007 Great Teacher Award banquet
,Honour and Humanity
" ''Financial Times'', August 14, 2010
Review of Barzun's Life and Work, October 26, 2012
*The Intellectual Portrait Series: A Conversation with Jacques Barzun
Liberty Fund, 2000Interview with Barzun in The Austin Chronicle, 2000Jacques Barzun interview
April 23, 2009, Old New York Stories, 2011A Conversation with Jacques Barzun (2010)
SoL Center, San Antonio TX, September 12, 2010The American Heritage® Dictionary Blog: Jacques Barzun
his responses to a 2012 questionnaireFinding aid to the Jacques Barzun papers at Columbia University. Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Category:20th-century American philosophers
Category:21st-century American philosophers
Category:Members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Category:Chevaliers of the Légion d'honneur
Category:Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients
Category:Columbia College (New York) alumni
Category:Columbia University faculty
Category:Edgar Award winners
Category:Fellows of Churchill College, Cambridge
Category:Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature
Category:National Humanities Medal recipients
Category:Fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Category:French emigrants to the United States
Category:Philosophers of education
Category:Philosophers from New York (state)
Category:Writers of style guides
Category:Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences alumni