Jacques Barzun Dies at 104; Cultural Critic Saw the Sun Setting on the West
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
October 25, 2012
Jacques Barzun, the distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history and came to see the West as sliding toward decadence, died Thursday night in San Antonio, where he lived. He was 104.
His death was announced by Arthur Krystal, Barzun’s friend and the executor of his estate.
Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon.
Mr. Barzun stood beside Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell and Lionel Trilling as among the mid-20th century’s most wide-ranging scholars, all of whom tried to reconcile the achievements of European culture and philosophy with the demands and tastes of American intellectual and cultural life.
He wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book at the age of 92 (and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia). That work, “From Dawn to Decadence,” is an 877-page survey of 500 years of Western culture in which he argued that Western civilization itself had entered a period of decline.
Mr. Barzun was both of the academy and the public square, a man of letters and — he was proud to say — of the people. In books and in the classroom he championed Romantic literature, 19th-century music and the Western literary canon. He helped design the influential “great books” curriculum at Columbia, where he was one of its most admired figures for half a century, serving as provost, dean of faculty and university professor.
As an educator Mr. Barzun was an important critic of American universities, arguing in 1968 that their curriculums had become an undisciplined “bazaar” of miscellaneous studies.
But he was also a popularizer, believing that the achievements of the arts and scholarship should not be divorced from the wider American culture. Writing for a general audience, he said, was “a responsibility of scholars.”
To that end he served as history consultant to Life magazine and as a critic for Harper’s. His articles appeared in Life magazine and The Saturday Evening Post as well as The Atlantic, The Nation and The New Republic. In 1951, he joined Trilling and W. H. Auden in founding the Readers’ Subscription Book Club, which sought to make serious scholarship and literature widely available.
His fascinations extended to mystery fiction, which he surveyed in the anthology “The Delights of Detection” in 1961. Another was baseball, an American institution he considered with a scholar’s eye. In a 1953 essay, “On Baseball,” he wrote:
“The wonderful purging of the passions that we all experienced in the fall of ’51, the despair groaned out over the fate of the Dodgers, from whom the league pennant was snatched at the last minute, give us some idea of what Greek tragedy was like.”
Unlike many of his colleagues, Professor Barzun showed little interest in taking overtly political positions. This was partly because he became a university administrator and had to stand above the fray, and partly because he approached the world with a detached civility and a sardonic skepticism about intellectual life.
“The intellectuals’ chief cause of anguish,” he wrote in “The House of Intellect” (1959), “are one another’s works.”
If Mr. Barzun kept the political issues of the day at arm’s length, he nonetheless developed a reputation as a cultural conservative after the student protests at Columbia in the late 1960s. He later argued that the “peoples of the West” had “offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere.”
But at the same time, he said, Western civilization had also cultivated the seeds of its undoing by envying what it renounced and succumbing to the lure of rebellion. Its virtues and failings, he argued, were in some respects identical: the freedom to rebel could turn into sweeping nihilism, resulting in decadence. He saw that happening.
His own stature as a public intellectual was undisputed. He was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, established by Napoleon Bonaparte, and awarded the Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, by President George W. Bush. His friendships embraced poets and scholars, and he continued often argumentative correspondence with friends into the 21st century. An authorized biography, “Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind,” by Michael Murray, was published in 2011.
In 1996, he also made a seemingly unlikely move from New York to San Antonio, where he lived until his death.
“After being boxed in by man and his constructions in Europe and the East, the release into space is exhilarating,” he wrote in The New York Times in 1982 about his repeated visits to Texas. “The horizon is a huge remote circle, and no hills intervene.”
Jacques Barzun was born on Nov. 30, 1907, in Créteil, a suburb of Paris, the son of Anne-Rose and Henri Martin Barzun. His father was a diplomat and writer with artistic interests. The Barzun home became an avant-garde salon, which Mr. Barzun once called “a seedbed of modernism” and “an open house for hotheads.” Regular visitors included the writer Jean Cocteau and the painter Albert Gleizes. (Gleizes’s portrait of Mr. Barzun’s mother hung in Mr. Barzun’s house.)
“By the time I was 9,” Mr. Barzun said in an interview with The Times in 2000, “I had the conviction that everybody in the world was an artist except plumbers or people who delivered groceries.”
Mr. Barzun studied at the Lycée Janson de Sailly, only to find himself, he said, teaching there at the age of 9. After World War I broke out in 1914, many teachers were drafted into the military, and older students were inducted to teach the younger ones.
With friends and acquaintances killed in the fighting, Mr. Barzun found the war a “shattering experience.” In 1917, his father went to the United States on a diplomatic mission. Then, at age 11, he “experienced a very deep depression,” Mr. Barzun said in the New York Times interview in 2000. He contemplated suicide.
In 1920, with the French university system decimated by the war and young Jacques still in despair, it was decided that he would travel to the United States, accompanied by his mother. To improve his English, he read “Gulliver’s Travels.” Mr. Barzun’s first thoughts about America, he said, were of a people almost as exotic as Gulliver’s Yahoos and Brobdingnagians.
“I had read a lot of books about the Indians,” he explained. “I thought that I would come here and see Indians galloping across the plains.”
Instead he went to Columbia, where he was exposed to the work of the most important critics and historians of the time, including F. J. E. Woodbridge, John Dewey, Mark Van Doren and Mortimer Adler. He became a drama critic for the university newspaper; wrote lyrics for a campus show, “Zuleika, or the Sultan Insulted”; and helped create Ghosts Inc., a tutorial service.
He graduated in 1927 as valedictorian and that summer taught his first course at Columbia in contemporary civilization. He stayed there until his retirement in 1975, having received his master’s degree there in 1928 and his Ph.D. in 1932, with a thesis on Montesquieu, the French Enlightenment political philosopher, in which Mr. Barzun attacked the popular notion of “the French race.” He came to be so closely associated with the university that he redesigned its academic robes.
In 1931 he married Lucretia Mueller; they were divorced in 1936. That year he married Mariana Lowell, a distant cousin of the poet Robert Lowell (and the niece of the poet Amy Lowell), who died in 1979. In 1980 he married Marguerite Davenport, a descendant of a founder of the Jamestown colony and a scholar of American literature. She survives him, as do 3 children from his second marriage: James, Roger and Isabel Barzun; 10 grandchildren; and 8 great-grandchildren.
A turning point in Mr. Barzun’s academic career came when he was exposed to the developing discipline of cultural history, which relates culture, the arts and ideas to historical events unfolding on the larger public stage. At Columbia, Mr. Barzun assisted the historian Carlton J. H. Hayes in preparing the textbook “A Political and Cultural History of Modern Europe.” With the book he was, as he put it, “launched.”
The themes of his first books were related to the political world of the 1930s. (He became a United States citizen in 1933.) His 1937 book, “Race: A Study in Modern Superstition,” grew out of his dissertation. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, he wrote “Of Human Freedom,” attacking absolutism and tracing the intellectual origins of democracy.
These issues reflected a broader concern that preoccupied him throughout his career as he championed 19th-century liberalism, with its ideals of individualism and liberty, and opposed intellectual and political traditions that he felt to be rigid, deterministic or aristocratic.
Mr. Barzun came to associate liberalism with European Romanticism as it was reflected in poets like Wordsworth and Goethe and composers like Berlioz and Beethoven. His two-volume study “Berlioz and the Romantic Century” (1950) was credited with restoring Berlioz’s reputation as a great composer. Romanticism, Mr. Barzun later wrote, “implies not only risk, effort, energy; it implies also creation, diversity and individual genius.” In Time magazine in 1956, Mr. Barzun argued that America was “the land of Romanticism par excellence,” thus linking the nation’s possibilities with the intellectual tradition he most admired.
Against that Romantic vitality, Mr. Barzun pitted anything “systematic” or “absolute,” particularly the “scientism” that he saw as modernity’s unjust revenge against Romanticism. In another seminal book, “Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage” (1941),” he argued that 20th-century thought had been skewed by the influence of those three major figures — harmful influence, he concluded. Darwin, Marx and Wagner, he wrote, had each created a variety of “mechanical materialism,” in which all that is human and variable is subjected to domineering systems. Mr. Barzun associated those systems with the scientific worldview, extending its power over religion, society and art.
This was to become a recurring theme; Mr. Barzun even considered science to have had a deleterious effect on university education. While he maintained that modern science was “one of the most stupendous and unexpected triumphs of the human mind,” he attacked, again and again, any hint of “mechanical scientism,” which he said had baleful consequences.
In 1964, in his book “Science: The Glorious Entertainment,” Mr. Barzun offered ironic praise for science’s “all-pervasive energy.”
“It is,” he wrote, “at once a mode of thought, a source of strong emotion and faith as fanatical as any in history.”
This view of science and his attempts to associate its supposed mechanistic qualities with Darwin or Wagner now seem to be among his weakest and most dated speculations. But Mr. Barzun may have been most influential in his arguing for a form of Romantic liberalism in American education. He believed that the mission of the university should have nothing to do with professional training or political advocacy. The university, he wrote, should not be a “public utility”; rather it should be a “city of the mind” devoted to the intellectual currents of Western civilization.
That was the thinking behind his curriculum of classic literary and philosophical texts, still required of all Columbia freshmen. And with Trilling he taught one of Columbia’s most renowned courses, “Studies in European Intellectual History and Culture Since 1750,” familiarly known as “the Barzun-Trilling seminar.”
In books like “The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going” (1968), Mr. Barzun raised questions that still roil the academy and intellectual life: What is the purpose of a university education? What should the relationship be between the elite artistic traditions of Europe and the democratic popular culture of the United States?
His positions on many issues inspired controversy. So fervent was his advocacy of Berlioz that Auden, writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1950, said that Mr. Barzun “sometimes seems a fanatic to whom Berlioz is the only composer who ever lived, against whom the slightest criticism is blasphemy.”
In 1945, reviewing his book “Teacher in America,” The New Yorker said that “everybody in the teaching profession ought to read Mr. Barzun, if only to be able to argue with him.”
But his admirers were legion. In 1959, Daniel J. Boorstin wrote in The Times that Mr. Barzun’s book “The House of Intellect” was “the most important critique of American culture in many years.”
In that book, Mr. Barzun argued that egalitarianism, which he celebrated in the political sphere, had no place in the university. He objected to educational “philanthropy,” which he defined as “the liberal doctrine of free and equal opportunity as applied to things of the mind.”
By the 1960s, he wrote in “The American University,” the university was being mistakenly expected to “provide a home for the arts, satisfy divergent tastes in architecture and social mores, cure cancer, recast the penal code and train equally for the professions and for a life of cultural contentment.”
He also objected to attempts to politicize the academy, whether in support of governmental policies or in opposition to them. In the 1968 student demonstrations at Columbia, for example, protesters took over administration buildings and held a dean hostage, objecting not only to the Vietnam War but also to the roles the university played in the defense establishment and in its own Upper Manhattan neighborhood. In his critique of the protests, Mr. Barzun accused the faculty of failing in its educational responsibilities and commitments to students. And the protesters, he wrote, were guilty of “student despotism.”
After Mr. Barzun retired from Columbia, he became an adviser to Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publishing house. Mr. Barzun’s engagement with Western civilization continued into his last years. According to his biographer, Michael Murray, he began a book called “Janus” in 2001, that “was to have been a view of present-day culture by an archaeologist of the thirtieth century.” In 2008, dissatisfied, he put it aside.
In his 2000 book, “From Dawn to Decadence,” he argued that one of the great virtues of the West was its character as a “mongrel civilization”: over the course of its development, it was resiliently constructed out of dozens of national cultures.
He traced periods of rise and fall in the Western saga, and contended that another fall was near — one that could cause “the liquidation of 500 years of civilization.” This time the decline would be caused not by scientism and absolutism, he maintained, but by an internal crisis in the civilization itself, which he believed had come to celebrate nihilism and rebellion.
And yet, in the cycles of history, he believed another renewal would come.
“It is only in the shadows,” he wrote, “when some fresh wave, truly original, truly creative, breaks upon the shore, that there will be a rediscovery of the West.”