Remembering the work of Jacques Barzun

Historians in the News

Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA.

The great teacher, cultural historian and social critic Jacques Barzun died yesterday (October 25, 2012) at the age of 104. The French-born Barzun’s father, Henri-Martin Barzun, was a civil servant in the French ministry of labor, but the elder Barzun was also a writer and many prominent authors and artists visited the family home.  In 1917, the French government sent Henri-Martin Barzun on a mission to the United States. The young Jacques went to the United States in 1920. Still a teenager, Jacques Barzun enrolled in Columbia University in New York City in 1923.

Barzun took his bachelor’s degree from Columbia in 1927 and then began teaching and graduate study at the same institution. He received the Ph.D. degree in 1932. His dissertation was published as his first book, The French Race: Theories of Its Origins and their Social and Political Implications Prior to the Revolution (1932). In this book, Barzun examined how the idea of race had developed historically in French thought and how this idea had shaped political and social behavior. This theme of the historical emergence of the idea of race, an idea that Barzun saw as misleading and dangerous, became the basis of his second book, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937).  These two books were timely in their topic because the Nazi Party had risen to power in Germany during these years, advocating racial doctrines derived from the historical influences described by Barzun.

While teaching at Columbia, Barzun came into contact with prominent New York intellectuals. The literary critic Lionel Trilling became his friend and collaborator when the two taught a “Great Books” class in 1934.  Barzun and his first wife, Marianna, frequently socialized with Trilling and his wife, Diana, also a renowned literary critic....

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Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012

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