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Barzun, Jacqueslocked

(30 November 1907–25 October 2012)
  • William R. Keylor

Barzun, Jacques (30 November 1907–25 October 2012), historian, essayist, and cultural critic, was born Jacques-Henri-Louis-Roger Barzun in Créteil, near Paris, France, to Henri-Martin and Anne Rose Barzun. His father was a poet who, with other aspiring young writers, had founded a colony of artists called L’Abbaye after the dilapidated house they occupied in the small Parisian suburb. After moving to the nearby town of Passy, the Barzun family hosted a diverse group of musicians, painters, sculptors, and poets—Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau, Wassily Kandinsky, Guillaume Apollinaire, Marcel Duchamp, Stefan Zweig, and other champions of cultural modernism—whose free-wheeling debates left their mark on the youngster. After World War I Henri-Martin Barzun, who had traveled to the United States in a diplomatic post during the war, brought his son with him to that country for his secondary education in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Jacques Barzun entered Columbia College in 1923 at the age of fifteen. He would remain at Columbia, as teacher, professor, and administrator, for more than half a century.

As an undergraduate Barzun plunged into a wide range of extracurricular activities and excelled at everything he undertook. He served three years as drama critic for the student newspaper, was the author of the 1927 satirical Varsity Show, and became president of Philolexian (one of the oldest college literary societies in the United States). On the academic side of his pursuits, he decided to forgo ephemeral ambitions to study the law or diplomacy in favor of cultural history. In 1927, at the age of nineteen, Jacques Barzun graduated at the head of his class, having won a prestigious fellowship for graduate study at Columbia in modern European history. Before his twentieth birthday he was asked to teach sections of the Contemporary Civilization class as he launched his graduate career.

In 1931 he married Lucretia Mueller, a Barnard College student whom he had met four years earlier. In 1932 he defended his doctoral dissertation, which was published the same year as The French “Race”: Theories of Its Origins and Their Social and Political Implications Prior to the Revolution, and he became a U.S. citizen in 1933. At the urging of his supervisor, Professor Carlton J. H. Hayes, Barzun expanded his analysis of French racial thought to the entire world, publishing Race: A Study in Modern Superstition in 1937. In both Barzun exposed the pseudoscientific conceptions of racial distinctions and labeled them as a human construct with no scientific validity.

His first two projects on the subject of race proved to be a diversion from his true intellectual passion: cultural history in the broadest sense of the term. After a postgraduate research trip to Europe, during which he observed at firsthand the activities of the Nazi Party in Hitler’s Germany, he returned to Morningside Heights in the fall of 1934 to begin his full-time teaching career at Columbia. With a young instructor of English named Lionel Trilling, he began to jointly teach a section of the Great Books course that had become the mainstay of undergraduate education at the institution. The Barzun-Trilling colloquium would become a much sought after experience for students for many decades to come. His marriage to Lucretia Mueller having ended in divorce, in 1936 he married Mariana Lowell, a violinist and cousin of the poet Amy Lowell. The couple had three children.

By the outbreak of World War II Barzun had begun to develop a reputation in cultural criticism as well as historical scholarship. His first truly influential work, Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941) revealed his capacity to tackle topics as widely divergent as biology, political theory, and music. He treated these three thinkers as intellectual forerunners of twentieth-century totalitarianism because they denied the significance of mind and consciousness and promoted a way of thinking he called “mechanistic materialism.” His assault on the cultural consequences of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which included the Social Darwinist theories he had disparaged in his earlier work on race, led him to condemn “scientism” and what he regarded as its iniquitous influence on the modern world. His book Science: The Glorious Entertainment (1964), which strived to unmask the excessive pretensions of science, sparked considerable controversy in a culture that revered the scientific method and its beneficial effects on the lives of people. The book was particularly critical of the attempt by social and behavioral scientists to appropriate the methodology of the natural sciences for use in what he regarded as pseudoscientific scholarship. Later, in Clio and the Doctors: History, Psycho-history, and Quanto-history (1974), he reprimanded those in his own profession who presumed to apply the methods of the natural sciences to the study of the past.

In his long career Barzun acquired a number of critics who faulted him for overemphasizing high culture at the expense of popular culture, a branch of inquiry that became increasingly important in history and American studies departments in the United States. In fact, Barzun evinced a strong interest in cultural genres that were far removed from erudite intellectuals insulated from society at large. He was a lifelong aficionado of detective fiction, jointly publishing with his old friend Wendell Taylor A Catalogue of Crime (1971) which provided summaries of ninety classics of crime from 1900 to 1965. Another contradiction to his reputation as an aloof mandarin in an ivory tower was his devotion to the game of baseball. In his collection of essays titled God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words (1955), he warned that “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Written in the mid-1950s, when baseball was at the pinnacle of its golden age as the national pastime, this sentence was engraved on a plaque on the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Another example of the unpredictability of Barzun’s cultural tastes was his appreciation of the Romantic tradition in Western culture. For one who gave the impression of an austere rationalist who might have felt comfortable in the company of the philosophes of the Enlightenment, he staunchly defended the Romantic tradition against its critics. To those who held Romanticism responsible for the evils of irrationalism in the twentieth century he countered in Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943, revised in 1961 as Classic, Romantic, Modern) with a spirited defense of a movement that he insisted had been mischaracterized as dreamy, irrational, and hostile to thought and civilization. In his monumental Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950), he rescued the French composer from a long period of neglect by music lovers as well as scholars.

In the course of his writing and teaching Barzun maintained an avid interest in both the philosophy and practice of education in the United States. His Teacher in America (1945) celebrated the calling of teaching but looked askance at the principles of progressive education that he found incompatible with the requirements of true learning. In The House of Intellect (1959), written in the aftermath of Sputnik and the National Defense Education Act, he bemoaned the tendency to regard education as a means of improving the intellectual skills of American youth for geopolitical purposes during the Cold War. The American University (1968), published in the same year that the campus of his beloved Columbia University was temporarily closed by student protests against the Vietnam War and racial discrimination, reiterated his conviction that higher education should concentrate on its pedagogical mission and resist the social, economic, and political pressures from the world beyond.

Barzun somehow found the time amid his prodigious scholarly output and teaching activities to play an important role in university administration. In 1957 he was appointed dean of faculties and provost of Columbia University and proceeded to fulfill his administrative duties with the same determination that characterized his teaching and writing. He retired from the university in 1975 and became a literary adviser to the publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons for many years.

This longtime resident of New York City surprised his colleagues and friends in 1996 by moving to San Antonio, Texas, in the company of his third wife, Marguerite Lee Davenport, whom he had married after the death of Mariana Barzun in 1979. At the age of ninety-two he brought out his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, from 1500 to the Present (2000). In it he announced that the cultural shock of World War I marked a decisive break with the centuries of creativity in Western civilization that he celebrated in this lengthy and wide-ranging swan song for one of the most resolute defenders of that tradition. At age 103, a year before his death in San Antonio, he contributed his last piece of criticism, a review of a book about his longtime friend and colleague Lionel Trilling.

Music, art, literature, detective fiction, philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, science, and university administration: this incomplete list of topics that occupied his attention throughout his long and prolific career reveals the essence of Jacques Barzun’s signal contribution to the world of scholarly inquiry. By daring to delve into a wide range of disciplines without adopting the technical language that excludes all but the initiated, he showed that the extreme specialization of knowledge in modern times need not prevent intelligent people from communicating with one another in a language all can understand.


The papers of Jacques Barzun are located in the Rare Books & Manuscript Library of Columbia University. The authorized biography is Michael Murray, Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind (2011). Dora B. Weiner and William R. Keylor co-edited a Festschrift in honor of his retirement from Columbia, From Parnassus: Essays in Honor of Jacques Barzun (1976), to which a distinguished group of his friends contributed chapters. An obituary appeared in the New York Times on 25 Oct. 2012. A thoughtful appreciation of Barzun’s writings may be found in Gerald J. Russell, “The Achievement of Jacques Barzun,” First Things (26 Oct. 2012).