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Jacques Barzun, wide-ranging cultural historian, dies at 104

By Joe Holley,

Jacques Barzun, a Columbia University historian and administrator whose sheer breadth of scholarship — culminating in a survey of 500 years of Western civilization — brought him renown as one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, died Oct. 25 in San Antonio, where he had lived in recent years. He was 104.

His son-in-law Gavin Parfit confirmed his death, the Associated Press reported.

Dr. Barzun was 92 when he published what is widely regarded as his masterwork, “From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present.” Journalist David Gates spoke for a majority of critics when he wrote in Newsweek magazine that the book, which appeared in 2000, “will go down in history as one of the great one-man shows of Western letters.”

Dr. Barzun sustained one of the longest and brightest careers in academia, having first risen to prominence as a professor who helped shape Columbia University’s approach to general education. He later was dean of the graduate school, dean of faculties and provost. He had firmly established himself in the national consciousness by 1956, when Time magazine surveyed the role of intellectuals in American life and placed him on the cover. In 2003, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Dr. Barzun was a cultural historian, concerned with the interrelationships of intellectual movements over time and how ideas transform a civilization.

In addition to conducting dynamic and wide-ranging seminars at Columbia with literary critic Lionel Trilling, Dr. Barzun wrote dozens of books on intellectual history and several volumes on the state of American education. Other topics he explored included French and German literature; music, language and etymology; crime fiction; suspense writer Edgar Allan Poe as proofreader; and President Abraham Lincoln as prose stylist.

Arthur Krystal, a literary critic and Barzun scholar, once wrote, “Barzun is someone to whom experts turn for help in their fields.” Krystal noted that conductor Arturo Toscanini sought the scholar’s advice on “an oddity” Barzun had spotted in the score of French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz’s choral symphony “Romeo and Juliet.”

Dr. Barzun also originated one of the most oft-quoted aphorisms in American culture: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” The phrase, which is inscribed on a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame, was from his 1954 book “God’s Country and Mine,” a critical survey of American life at mid-century.

Jacques Martin Barzun was born in the Paris suburb of Creteil on Nov. 30, 1907.

His father, literary scholar Henri Martin Barzun, was a central figure in modernist art circles. “I was surrounded by the young poets, painters, musicians and sculptors who made Cubism, concrete poetry, atonality and the rest,” Jacques Barzun told an interviewer. “Varese, Apollinaire, Ezra Pound, Leger, Gleizes, Severini, Villon, Duchamp, Duchamp-Villon, Marie Laurencin, Cocteau and many others were to me household names in the literal sense — names of familiar figures around the house.”

He was permitted to read freely in his father’s large library and received his early education at the Lycee Janson de Sailly in Paris. Because of the shortage of teachers after World War I, the school applied the so-called Lancaster system, in which the older students taught the younger ones. As a result, Dr. Barzun became a teacher at age 9.

His father was dispatched to the United States on a diplomatic mission in 1917, and Jacques soon followed. In 1923, although not yet 16, he was admitted to Columbia. Dr. Barzun first considered a career in law and diplomacy, but contact at Columbia with such scholars as John Dewey, Mark Van Doren and Mortimer Adler led the young student toward history. He was particularly drawn to the work of the American philosopher William James, known as the father of pragmatism.

Dr. Barzun also served for three years as drama critic for the university’s daily newspaper, the Spectator, and wrote the book and lyrics for a campus musical variety show. To make a little spending money, he and several friends set up Ghosts Inc., in his words a “perfectly legal and honest tutoring mill” that handled virtually all subjects.

After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1927, graduating at the head of his class, he became a lecturer in history at Columbia. In 1929, he was appointed an instructor in the history department. He said his career was “launched” after he assisted historian Carlton J.H. Hayes in revising Hayes’s widely used two-volume textbook, “A Political and Social History of Modern Europe.”

Dr. Barzun received his doctorate in history from Columbia in 1932. Afterward, a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies enabled him to travel abroad and undertake research that led to a book, “Race: A Study in Modern Superstition” (1937).

The book was written at a time when notions of racial superiority were being put to murderous use in Nazi Germany. In subsequent work, Dr. Barzun explored dangerous perversions of Western thought in “Of Human Freedom” (1939), a defense of the democratic spirit and an attack on absolutism, and “Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage” (1941, revised in 1958), in which Dr. Barzun charged the three 19th-century “intellectual imperialists” with responsibility for the pseudoscientific, mechanistic system that gave rise to 20th-century communism and fascism.

In “Romanticism and the Modern Ego” (1943), Dr. Barzun engaged a topic that became a lifelong fascination. Members of the Romantic movement, he contended, were not sentimental escapists but idealistic individualists trying to build a better world in the post-Napoleonic era. He explored similar themes in his two-volume “Berlioz and the Romantic Century” (1950).

In essays and a series of books on American education, including “Teacher in America” (1945) and “The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going” (1968), Dr. Barzun presented education as having a mandate to impart “common knowledge and common reference.” He inveighed against “the gangrene of specialism” in college offerings that he thought would cause the “individual mind [to be] doomed to solitude and the individual heart to drying up.”

At Columbia, where he taught 19th- and 20th-century history, Dr. Barzun became a full professor in 1945. He was one of the sponsors of the Colloquium, a two-year course of reading and discussion of the great books. His Columbia seminars with Trilling, conducted from 1946 to 1972 and titled “Historical Bases of English Literature,” were considered essential to forming Dr. Barzun’s reputation as a dynamic and illuminating thinker.

“Schools are not intended to moralize a wicked world,” he once wrote, “but to impart knowledge and develop intelligence, with only two social aims in mind: prepare to take on one’s share in the world’s work, and perhaps in addition, lend a hand in improving society, after schooling is done. Anything else is the nonsense we have been living with.”

After retiring from Columbia in 1975, Dr. Barzun launched a second career as a literary adviser to the publishing house of his friend Charles Scribner.

In 1976, Dr. Barzun gave a lecture at Trinity University in San Antonio and was introduced by Marguerite Davenport, then an American studies professor at Trinity. They married in 1981, after the death in 1979 of Dr. Barzun’s his first wife, Mariana Lowell, a violinist from the famous Boston family of poets and intellectuals.

Besides his second wife, of San Antonio, survivors include three children from his first marriage, James Lowell Barzun, Roger Martin Barzun and Isabel Barzun; 10 grandchildren; and eight grandchildren.

In 1997, Dr. Barzun moved to San Antonio, where he finished the 800-page “From Dawn to Decadence.” His magnum opus divides the past five centuries into four principal eras — a religious era (about 1500 to 1660) that began with the Reformation; a political era (1661 to 1789) that ended with the French Revolution; a Romantic era (1790 to 1920); and the modern era, coming to an end now.

Given the book’s title, some readers suggested that he saw the contemporary period as a new and hopeless Dark Age. Instead, he said, he was a believer in chaos, “a sudden twist in the course of events,” heralding a brighter time. He added, “I have always been — I think any student of history almost inevitably is — a cheerful pessimist.”

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