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 dubbed 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 and Grenoble. 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 (1914–18), 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, 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 in 1954.
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, Texas. 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 in 2013 was appointed 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 peacefully at his home in San Antonio, Texas 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 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, Marx, Wagner, Berlioz, William James, French verse, English prose composition, university teaching, detective fiction, [and] 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 and medicine, psychiatry 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 and publishing (On Writing, Editing, and Publishing, 1971), and on research methods in history and the other humanities (The Modern Researcher, which has seen at least six editions).
Barzun did not disdain popular culture: his varied interests included detective fiction and baseball. 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".
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. 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.
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