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.”