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...
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