"Barzun's life has, indeed, been a happy, prolonged immersion in a pretty high level of civilization, starting with the circumstance of his birth. His father was a prominent author in that fin-de-siècle France best described by Proust's In Seach of Lost Time. As a mere infant, he met his father's friends, Modernist icons like Apollinaire and Duchamp. After finishing his schooling at the lyceé, Barzun, on his father's advice, came to the United States. This was a rather advent...urous move: As Barzun puts it, "I more or less expected to see Indians and cowboys riding down Broadway." Graduating from Columbia University, he stayed on there, as a professor of cultural history, from 1927 to 1975. Although he was of retirement age, he began a second career by becoming an editorial consultant at Scribners for over a decade. During his tenure at Columbia, Barzun was pretty much at the heart of the New York intellectual scene. He taught a famous "Great Books" class there with Lionel Trilling. Although some critics have assumed, from Barzun's criticisms of modern culture, that he is a conservative ideologue, in reality, he has always followed his own pragmatic vision of things. His first book, Race: A Study in Superstition(1938), predates Stephen Gould's classic book on the subject, The Mismeasure of Man, by almost 40 years, debunking what was at that time the central tenet of conservativism, the myth of the superior race. Since then, Barzun has produced a steady stream of books and articles, for both the popular press and scholarly journals. He's written the standard text on research methodology in the humanities, and he's edited detective anthologies. His book Marx, Darwin, Wagner was, briefly, a bestseller in the Forties. Another book, which opened fire on the conventional wisdom about progressive education, House of Intellect, was a bestseller in the Fifties. My favorite among his books is the essay collection The Energies of Art (1956), which is rather like an introduction to both From Dawn to Decadence's emphasized figures and its pessimistic coda."
Although some critics have assumed, from Jacques Barzun's criticisms of modern culture, that he is a conservative ideologue, in reality he has always followed his own, pragmatic vision of things.
"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."."
Jacques Martin Barzun (November 30, 1907 – October 25, 2012) was a French-born American historian. Focusing on ideas and culture, he wrote about a wide range of subjects, including baseball, mystery novels, and classical music. He was also known as a philosopher of education. In the book Teacher…