Jacques Barzun: A Legacy of Passion



Kelsey McKernie is a staff writer for the History News Network. She is a graduate of Berry College in Floyd, Georgia, where she majored in history.

Jacques Barzun in an undated photograph. Credit: Columbia University.

History has lost yet another of its most extraordinary and distinguished scholars, with the death on October 25 of cultural historian Jacques Barzun, at the age of 104. Insatiably curious, energetic and open-minded, Barzun’s interests ranged from subjects as high-brow as classical music and Romantic philosophy, to those as common as mystery novels and baseball. French-born but thoroughly Americanized (he obtained citizenship in 1933), he paired Old World refinement with New World sincerity and wrote more than forty books over the course of seven decades.

Born outside Paris in 1907, Barzun spent his childhood surrounded by artists, poets, writers and composers. His father was a diplomat and literary scholar with connections to the modernist art circles, and encouraged young Barzun to converse with their famous house guests and read freely from his large library. Barzun got his first taste of teaching at the age of nine, when World War I created a shortage of schoolteachers and the older boys were tasked with instructing their younger classmates. The following year, his father was dispatched to the United States on a diplomatic mission, and was so impressed by what he saw that he later sent twelve-year-old Barzun to receive an American education.

Barzun’s roving curiosity and gift for scholarship served him well, and he was admitted to Columbia University at age fifteen. Initially he planned to study law, but quickly found himself attracted to history instead. Even then, however, he felt no need to restrict his energies to one subject, and in his spare time he wrote the book and lyrics for a campus variety show, became a drama critic for the newspaper, and started a tutoring service -- all while also a member of several academic clubs.

Despite his busy schedule, Barzun graduated valedictorian in four years, and remained at Columbia for his master’s and PhD studies. He received his doctorate in 1932, and by then he had already been teaching as a history instructor at the university for several years. During that time he had become fascinated by cultural history in particular, an interest that grew while he assisted Carlton J.H. Hayes in revising Hayes’ two-volume textbook, A Political and Social History of Europe. This, Barzun later said, was the experience that “launched” his career.

Following his work with Hayes, Barzun received a fellowship that allowed him to conduct research on his first book, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition, published in 1937. It was written as a reaction to the pseudo-scientific ideas of racial superiority being put to use in Nazi Germany, and was followed two years later by Of Human Freedom, a defense of democratic ideology and attack on absolutism.

He continued this line of thought in his 1941 book Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, in which he blamed these three figures for the “mechanical scientism” which he believed had led to fascism and communism. Their particular brand of the scientific worldview, he contended, had extended its harmful influence into nearly every sphere. While he was no detractor of science itself -- in fact, he praised it as “one of the most stupendous and unexpected triumphs of the human mind” -- he was critical of the way it was increasingly presented as being, in and of itself, the answer to everything. As a result, he later wrote, it was “at once a mode of thought, a source of strong emotion and faith as fanatical as any in history.”

This argument is unpopular now, but it came from his belief that no single subject could contain all there was to life. This belief had led him to choose cultural history as his primary focus, but it was also what led him to explore the myriad other interests which had been instilled in him as a child.

At Columbia, where he remained until his retirement in 1975, he taught nineteenth- and twentieth-century history, but his publications were eclectic, ranging from subjects like music (Berlioz was his favorite composer), rhetoric and literary criticism, and educational philosophy. He even wrote an essay “On Baseball” in 1954, in which he made a statement that now adorns the Baseball Hall of Fame: “Whoever wants to know the mind and heart of America had better learn baseball.”

Barzun tackled these and other topics over a long career, and -- always an independent thinker -- came to his own conclusions on each. As one writer put it, Barzun was “no respecter of persons, traditions or the most generally accepted platitudes.” Whether attacking or defending his subject, however, he was an unfailing mixture of geniality, civility, and intellectual honesty, at once scholarly and down-to-earth, and this won him a legion of friends and admirers.

That is not to say he did not have strong opinions. Barzun was passionate about what he saw as the worsening state of the American university. He argued that it should not be a place of specialized career-training, but a “city of the mind,” devoted simply to learning. He also detested the increasing politicization of the university, and was adamant that moralizing and political propaganda had no place there -- that professors and staff had a responsibility to do nothing more than to train students to think effectively, and allow them to form their own opinions.

Barzun’s works on educational philosophy are now among his most well-known, but at heart he remained first and foremost a historian of culture. He wrote prolifically on the subject, and enjoyed a wide lay readership, rare among historians. This was a source of great satisfaction to him, as he was a firm believer that the first duty of a scholar -- and most especially a historian -- was not to write for other scholars, but for the common reader.

As it happened, Barzun had a remarkable gift for storytelling which made even his more academic publications accessible to all. He was of the opinion that works of history should include “the range and wildness of individuality, the pivotal force of trifles, the manifestations of greatness, the failure of unquestioned talent.” His own works certainly did, and this combined with his undisputed intellectual prowess gained him recognition from an impressive variety of sources.

But scholarly writing was only one outlet for his energy and interests. Others included the Readers’ Subscription Book Club, which he founded in 1951 along with W.H. Auden and Lionel Trilling in order to make academic works more widely available. At the same time, he also helped found the discipline of cultural history at Columbia, ran the university’s famous Great Books course along with Trilling, and from 1955 until his retirement served in several prestigious roles at the university.

Even afterwards, he continued to write. At the age of 93, he published From Dawn to Decadence, an 877-page masterpiece that traced Western civilization from 1500 to the present, examining its rises and falls. At the end he predicted that another fall was soon to come, caused by an internal conflict within the West itself and sown from the seeds of nihilism, rebellion, and a culture of entitlement.

But, he added, after this fall the West would eventually be revived. “It is only in the shadows,” he wrote, “when some fresh wave, truly original, truly creative, breaks upon the shore.” Chaos often heralded a brighter time, he believed -- but then again, he was quick to admit, he had always been a “cheerful pessimist.”

Looking back at his long life, it seems as though he had more reasons to be cheerful than pessimistic: lifelong scholar, distinguished professor, baseball fan and music aficionado, his legacy will be remembered fondly by many. He has an impressive list of awards to his name, including his appointment as a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, his award of the American Medal of Freedom, and a wide array of scholarly recognitions, most notable amongst them the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History, awarded each year since 1993 by the American Philosophical Society.

Jacques Barzun was a Romantic in the tradition of Berlioz and Wordsworth, a friend to poets, artists and scholars alike, and he spent the better part of 104 years doing what he loved. He was dedicated to the idea that “life, which spurs desire and fills the mind, is wider than science or art or philosophy or all together,” and his tireless passion, curiosity and hard work allowed him to experience it to the fullest. It is hard to imagine a better legacy than that.

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