Jacques Barzun ’27, ’32 GSAS, Esteemed Historian and Professor
By Timothy P. Cross ’98 GSAS
Famed historian, former University Professor, former provost and dean of the faculties and noted author Jacques Barzun ’27, ’32 GSAS died in his San Antonio, Texas, home on October 25. He was 104.
National Public Radio eulogized Barzun as “one of the most influential historians, educators and thinkers of the 20th century.” Writing in The Guardian (UK), historian Douglas Johnson remembered Barzun as “a scholar of encyclopedic knowledge allied to a determination to maintain high standards in any of the fields his work touched on.”
In The New York Times, Edward Rothstein praised Barzun “as a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball.” Barzun, he continued, “stood beside Sidney Hook [’27 GSAS], Daniel Bell [’60 GSAS] and Lionel Trilling [’25, ’38 GSAS] 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.”
Jacques Martin Barzun was born on November 30, 1907, in Créteil, outside of Paris, to Anne-Rose and Henri Martin Barzun. His father was a diplomat and writer, and the family home became a meeting ground for artists and writers, including Jean Cocteau and painter Albert Gleizes, whose portrait of Madame Barzun her son kept until his death. Barzun began his studies at the Lycée Janson de Sailly. During WWI, Barzun got his first teaching experience, when at 9 he began teaching younger students to offset teachers who had entered the French military.
The war devastated the young Barzun to such a degree that he contemplated suicide. At the war’s end, his father gave him the choice of study in England or America. Barzun, an enthusiastic reader of James Fenimore Cooper, didn’t hesitate in choosing America, and in 1920 the family settled in New Rochelle, N.Y. Barzun entered the College three years later, at 15. He was class valedictorian, drama critic of Spectator, editor of Varsity (a literary magazine) and president of the Philolexian Society, and came under the influence of some of the College’s most notable professors of the period, including F.J.E. Woodbridge, Mark Van Doren ’21 GSAS and Mortimer Adler ’23, ’29 GSAS.
Barzun enrolled in GSAS and was appointed an instructor in the history department. He became a full professor in 1945, the Seth Low Professor of History in 1960 and University Professor in 1967. Barzun’s professors were the pioneers behind the Core Curriculum, and the first course that Barzun taught at Columbia was “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West.” In 1932, he became a driving force behind the introduction of the “Colloquium on Important Books,” which he taught with Trilling. He later helped establish “Humanities A,” now Literature Humanities, and taught the course regularly.
Barzun assisted historian Carlton J.H. Hayes (Class of 1904, Class of 1909 GSAS) in writing A Political and Cultural History of Modern Europe. He later credited this experience with launching his interest in cultural history, which would be a leitmotif of his career. His first book, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937), grew out of his dissertation. In Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, he criticized his three subjects for contributing to a “mechanical scientism” that had a baleful effect on education. And he emerged as perhaps the most spirited defender of 19th-century Romanticism, which he viewed as embodying 19th-century liberal ideals, notably in Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943) and Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950), which is credited with bringing the composer back into the general repertoire.
Barzun wrote more than 30 books on myriad topics, and relished writing for general audiences as well as academic readers. Many students remember Barzun for his Modern Researcher (1957), now in its sixth edition, and Simple and Direct (1975); teachers and professors remember The Teacher in America (1945), the House of Intellect (1959) and The American University (1968). But Barzun also briefly hosted a CBS radio program in the 1940s, consulted for Life magazine, was a critic for Harper’s and advised Charles Scribner’s Sons publishers. As an undergraduate, Barzun kept careful track of each new detective story he came across; he surveyed the genre in The Delights of Detection (1960). A memorable, if somewhat truncated line from a 1953 essay on baseball — “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball”— is inscribed in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
During WWII, the Department of the Navy even commissioned him to write an introduction to naval history, for the education of naval officers.
In 1957, University President Grayson Kirk appointed Barzun dean of faculties and provost. Barzun worked to rein in departmental “warlords” and resist the centrifugal forces at work in the University. He centralized the budget process and established uniform rules for sabbaticals and promotions. He established the Office of Art Properties and The Columbia Forum, a University journal. He even redesigned the University’s regalia, introducing the now familiar slate-gray because the former black had made “commencement under a hot sun an annual ordeal.”
Barzun officially retired in 1975, but remained a fixture on campus for two more decades. In 1996, he surprised many when he announced that he was moving to San Antonio, the home of his third wife, Marguerite Davenport. But the move did not stifle his connection to the University or his intellectual life. In 2000, he published From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present, a nearly 900-page opus that reached No. 5 on The New York Times bestseller list. This survey, described in Newsweek by David Gates as “the damnedest story you’ll ever read,” stunned readers with its calm assessment that Western culture was entering a period of inevitable decline.
On the occasion of Barzun’s 100th birthday in 2007, The New Yorker published a lengthy profile by Barzun’s friend and editor, Arthur Krystal. “More than any other historian of the past four generations,” Krystal says, “Barzun has stood for the seemingly contradictory ideas of scholarly rigor and unaffected enthusiasm.”
Barzun’s first marriage, to Lucretia Mueller, ended in divorce. His second wife, Mariana Lowell, whom he married in 1936, died in 1979. He is survived by his third wife and his children, James, Roger and Isabel (all from his second marriage); 10 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
For more on Barzun, see Alumni Corner.
Timothy P. Cross ’98 GSAS, a former CCT associate editor, is the advancement communications officer at Columbia Engineering.