Jacques Martin Barzun has been an influential American cultural historian and social critic with an exceptionally long literary career. The French-born Barzun’s father, Henri-Martin Barzun, was a civil servant in the French ministry of labor. The elder Barzun was also a writer, and many prominent authors and artists visited the family home. In 1917, the French government sent Henri-Martin Barzun on a mission to the United States. The young Jacques moved there in 1920. Still a teenager, Jacques Barzun enrolled in Columbia University in New York in 1923. He would continue to be associated with Columbia for the rest of his life.
He took his bachelor’s degree from Columbia in 1927 and then began teaching and graduate study at the same institution. He received a Ph.D. degree in 1932. His dissertation was published as his first book, The French Race: Theories of Its Origins and Their Social and Political Implications Prior to the Revolution. In this book, Barzun examines how the idea of race had developed historically in French thought and how this idea had shaped political and social behavior. This theme of the historical emergence of the idea of race, an idea that Barzun saw as misleading and dangerous, became the basis of his second book, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition. These two books were timely in their topic because the Nazi Party had risen to power in Germany during these years, advocating racial doctrines derived from the historical influences described by Barzun.
While teaching at Columbia, Barzun came into contact with prominent New York intellectuals. The literary critic Lionel Trilling became his friend and collaborator when the two taught a “great books” class in 1934. Barzun and his first wife, Marianna, frequently socialized with Trilling and his wife, Diana Trilling, also a renowned literary critic.
Barzun’s third book, Of Human Freedom, also treated the historical currents of his day. Written on the eve of World War II, the book offered a defense of democracy in the face of the absolutist doctrines of Nazism and Fascism. The political ideas in this book were inspired by the late nineteenth century American psychologist and philosopher William James, who formulated a version of the philosophy of pragmatism and saw American democracy as a flawed but practical way of meeting the challenges of political life.
Darwin, Marx, Wagner was Barzun’s first best-seller. It was a critical examination of the three nineteenth century figures who had shaped much of the modern era’s approaches to biology, politics and society, and music. Barzun’s interest in education led him to publish a number of works on teaching, including The Teacher in America, The House of Intellect, and The American University. In these books, he was critical of progressive education and supported the ideal of education in liberal arts in favor of vocational education.
Although he always considered himself primarily a teacher, Barzun’s interest in shaping intellectual life went beyond his own classroom and even beyond his own books. Together with his Columbia colleague Lionel Trilling and the poet W. H. Auden, Barzun formed the Reader’s Subscription Book Club in 1951. The three men of letters made selections of recent historical and literary works and made these available to club members at discount prices. Each month, one of the three would write an essay on the club’s main selection to be printed in the monthly newsletter.
Barzun served Columbia as dean of graduate faculties from 1955 to 1958 and dean of faculties and provost from 1958 to 1967. He was named Seth Low Professor of History in 1960. In 1975, he finally retired from Columbia’s active faculty and became an emeritus professor. In his retirement, though, he took up a second career as literary consultant to the publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons.
The prolific Barzun managed one of his most impressive achievements when, at the age of ninety-two, he published From Dawn to...
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