Jacques Barzun: Historian who believed that Western culture was descending into trivia

 

The long career of Jacques Barzun culminated in his publication, at the age of 94, of From Dawn to Decadence (2000) a survey of five centuries of Western cultural life in 900 pages, proving him the perfect don, yet a don who refused to imprison himself in a single subject. He wanted to share with others his relish for all that humanity has achieved, and wrote with authority in more than 40 books on Berlioz, Wagner, Hazlitt, Goethe, baseball and detective fiction, among many other subjects. His 1945 book Teacher in America, was regularly reprinted for 50 years. He had strong, original ideas about teaching, and once wrote that “there are more born poets than born teachers, something with which the spread of education has to contend.”

His rich father, Henri-Martin Barzun, was a writer, and at his home at Créteil, near Paris, had established l’Abbaye, a community of artists. So the boy grew up on Cubism, heard Stravinsky from his début, listened to stories that Apollinaire wrote for him and visited Duchamp’s studio. The advent of the Modern seemed to Barzun as he grew up just a part of the natural order of things. Art and the discussion of art were the only concern of all who counted in his universe, at least until the First World War and its aftermath. Perhaps it was this period that gave Barzun that controlled pessimism which tempered his otherwise Candide-like determination to seek out all that makes life delightful.

In 1920, his family moved to America, and by 1927 he had taken a degree at Columbia, with which he was to be associated ever after. While at work on a PhD he lectured in history, and in time became associate professor, dean of graduate faculties and provost. His power at Columbia went unchallenged.

Philip Lopate, a student there in the 1960s, wrote that he had asked Lionel Trilling for help over censorship of a magazine, and that Trilling had spoken to Barzun (“the Cardinal Richelieu” of the university) who assured him that the censorship was justified: “Barzun’s hunger for machinations and power was a campus joke ... We all knew that Trilling and Barzun had been close friends for years ... but that friendship had always puzzled me. Now I saw it as a kind of deal, with clear complicity on Trilling’s part. Barzun was his shadow, his worldly brother, who protected the senior faculty’s interests with administrative cunning, leaving Trilling free to continue his detached scholarly life.”

Not all Barzun’s time can have been absorbed in machinations: his shelf of books is rather longer than Trilling’s. The pull of history was stronger, though, and he was among those who helped invent the theory and practice of cultural history, that recognition of ideas and artefacts which exist in the marketplace and in circumstance.

His first book, in 1932, was The French ‘Race’: Theories of Its Origins and Their Social Implications, and he returned to the subject later in the decade, emphatic that dwelling on race ran counter to the human spirit, and quashed creativity.

From the start, perhaps as a result of his childhood, he could assimilate several points of view. In a life of 104 years he saw changes in taste, and the resurgence of artists after decline and eclipse. He was an informed populariser, at the vanguard of the mid-20th-century American vogue for the study of civilisations, and was an adviser to Life magazine: with WH Auden and Trilling, he formed a panel that chose books for the Reader’s Subscription club. In a spin-off, they had a television slot where, teacups in hand, they discussed the books: Edmund Wilson’s journal records watching when there was a great crash off-camera. He was later told Auden’s cup had contained neat gin and he had fallen to the floor. Barzun talked on unfazed.

As Carolyn Heilbrun wrote of him: “No picture of him I have seen ... captures either his physical or his inner qualities. With a taste for impeccable clothes (quite possibly the last man on earth to wear sock garters), he had neat hair and was given to studious speech ... he was not prone to sloppy, personal suffering.” He also had a rare ability to write against a background of administrative demands, even taking on such extra positions as being a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge.

Enough of Barzun’s works deal with specific matters, such as his monumental A Catalogue of Crime (1971), to show an interest similar to that of Edmund Wilson. Others could have easily made a book from the amount that Barzun put into an essay, such as his entry for the Journal of the American Medical Association about Thomas Beddoes, the great-grandfather of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who had been attendant on the ailments of Wordsworth and Coleridge. That eclecticism in depth was exemplified in his best, and best-selling, From Dawn to Decadence, which synthesised a lifetime’s study yet was no rehashing of old notes; its novel format had a boxed-off running commentary of contemporary quotations linked with, and just as rewarding as, the text of the main narrative.

There is no need to accept the thesis of its title, that culture is fragmenting into trivia, a subject Barzun had written about before in God’s Country and Mine (1954), in which he claimed that Walt Disney was “immortal for his black-and-white animated cartoons and lamentable in his vulgar fairy tales and fantasies in colour”. In Dawn he focused often on the way a place, incident or person can encapsulate a movement in history, showing, for example, how the 17th century revolution in science produced artistic forces. The book is full of detail, as vigorous as it is off-beat, comparing, say, the world of the Renaissance poets with Graham Greene. Perhaps administrative skill aids large-scale history. Barzun certainly knew how to get to the essence of a matter.

He was never a superhuman guru. Despite his formality, he was human, if only sometimes. Carolyn Heilbrun used to talk about detective stories with him, and, “one day Barzun asked me if I had any idea who Amanda Cross was... I told him I was. His astonishment was satisfying indeed. I had never before – and would never again – see him dumbfounded.”

Christopher Hawtree

Jacques Barzun, academic, historian and teacher: born Créteil, France 30 November 1907; married 1936 Mariana Lowell (died 1979), two sons, one daughter; married 1980 Marguerite Davenport; died San Antonio, Texas 25 October 2012.

Arts and Entertainment
books
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
people
Voices
Nigel Farage arrives for a hustings event at The Oddfellows Hall in Ramsgate on Tuesday
voicesA defection that shows who has the most to fear from the rise of Ukip
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Life and Style
Brave step: A live collection from Alexander McQueen whose internet show crashed because of high demand
fashionAs the collections start, Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL) Su...

Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

C# Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, MVC-4, HTML5) London

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web Develop...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution