Jacques Barzun Essay - Critical Essays

Barzun, Jacques


Jacques Barzun 1907-

French-born American historian, nonfiction writer, essayist, critic, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Barzun's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 51.

A renowned cultural historian, educator, and critic, Barzun is the author of more than thirty books on wide-ranging subjects encompassing music, art, education, and European intellectual history and literature. Upholding traditional views about language and pedagogy throughout his life, Barzun has been recognized as an erudite and independent-minded critic of contemporary academic trends and the deterioration of shared cultural heritage in the United States. His critique of higher education in The American University (1968) remains a prescient analysis of slipping standards, overspecialization, and an imperiled tenure system. At age ninety-two, Barzun published From Dawn to Decadence (2000), a magisterial survey of Western cultural and intellectual history, which is regarded as the capstone of his distinguished career.

Biographical Information

Born in Creteil, France, Barzun was the son of Anna-Rose and Henri Barzun, a respected author. It was with his parents that Barzun experienced the turbulent and exciting artistic world of early twentieth century Paris. Frequent visitors in the Barzun home included avant-garde artists such as Fernan Léger, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, and Jean Cocteau, and the poets Ezra Pound and Guillaume Apollinaire. Barzun received his early education at the Lycee Janson de Suilly in Paris, and taught for the first time at the school when he was only nine years old. Because of the devastation throughout Europe following World War I, his father encouraged him to pursue his education in the United States. In 1920, Barzun arrived in New York City, where he would spend most of his life. Barzun settled at Columbia University, from which he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1927, a master of arts degree in 1928, and a doctorate in 1932—the same year he published his first book, The French Race (1932). He taught history at Columbia from 1929 to 1975, earning distinction as the Seth Low Professor of History and University Professor of History. Barzun also served as an administrator at Columbia, holding the positions of dean of graduate faculties from 1955 through 1958 and dean of faculties and provost from 1958 to 1967. With his colleagues at Columbia (including Lionel Trilling), Barzun reshaped and expanded the humanities curriculum. His strong belief in the efficacy of the traditional teacher-student relationship positively influenced several generations of students. Barzun joined the board of editors for Encyclopedia Britannica in 1962 and was a member of the board of directors for the Macmillan publishing house from 1965 until 1975. He then became a literary advisor at the Charles Scribner's Sons publishing company from 1975 to 1993. Barzun married Mariana Lowell in 1936; the couple had three children. Following Mariana's death in 1979, Barzun married Marguerite Davenport in 1980. Barzun has received many awards, including the prestigious French Legion of Honor and the Silver Medal of the Royal Society of Arts (1972). In honor of his high scholarly achievement, Barzun received the Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1987.

Major Works

Though an eminent academician, Barzun has written the majority of his books not for other scholars, but for the educated public. His primary field of interest is nineteenth-century European culture, particularly Romanticism, a movement that he is credited with helping to resurrect from disrepute with Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943) and Classic, Romantic, and Modern (1961). Throughout his career Barzun has advocated open discourse in all areas of culture, contending that when theories are accepted unquestioningly, lively inquiry into history, science, art, music, and other areas becomes stifled. Barzun's most important early works that expound these ideals include Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941) and The House of Intellect (1959). His works published since the early 1980s—especially A Stroll with William James (1983), The Culture We Deserve (1989), Begin Here (1991), and most notably From Dawn to Decadence—continue to augment Barzun's astute cultural commentary. A Stroll with William James, which Barzun calls an “appreciation” rather than a biography, conveys his enthusiasm for James's originality and intellectual contributions to American thought. Moreover, the work establishes a strong argument for placing the philosopher near the top of the hierarchy of great American scholars. In Barzun's opinion, James—who coined the phrase “stream of consciousness,” extolled the virtues of pragmatism, and virtually invented the discipline of psychology—could only flourish in an atmosphere where even the most universally accepted ideas were open to lively dispute.

The Culture We Deserve, a collection of twelve essays originally published between 1972 and 1989, defines culture as the enduring contributions a society passes on to posterity, made possible through the free exercise of ideas within a disciplined atmosphere. Barzun uses the essays to debunk the ideas of the so-called “grand unifiers” of history, including Karl Marx. The Culture We Deserve maintains that art has been shackled by the willingness of critics, the public, and artists themselves to call everything “interesting,” whether or not it has artistic merit. The final chapter of The Culture We Deserve, titled “Toward the Twenty-First Century,” outlines areas of cultural decline that Barzun believes will result through the rejection of manners and ideas that have been part the Western world's heritage for five hundred years. Though he criticizes events, acts, and beliefs antithetical to his own stance of liberal humanism, Barzun's work is not a jeremiad against events in the present day. Rather, he views current cultural upheaval as the dawning of an age as momentous as the Renaissance.

An Essay on French Verse (1991)—addressed to readers of English poetry—explains the rules of French prosody and then, beginning with the eleventh-century epic La Chanson de Roland, demonstrates how each century brought changes in the forms of French poetry. Barzun has also written about music as an integral component of cultural history, notably in Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950), which combines two of his favorite topics—Romanticism and the nineteenth-century French composer Hector Berlioz. Begin Here builds on arguments made in Barzun's earlier The American University, in which he discusses the importance of reevaluating the tenure tradition and the damage that the “publish or perish” mentality has done not only to the university but also to scholarship as a whole. Barzun skewers the “new math” and “whole” language movements, insisting that they are responsible for turning out millions of functionally illiterate students in the United States. He also maintains that “education” (a term that he eschews) is not synonymous with teaching and learning; rather, it is an accrual of intellectual experiences over a lifetime.

From Dawn to Decadence, written nearly sixty years into his scholarly career, is a synthesis of Barzun's thoughts about the past five hundred years of Western civilization. Barzun uses the term “decadence” to refer to the dissolution of established thought and tradition occasioned by the full societal integration of ideas that were once new but have become stagnant. For example, he contends that the movement in the United States to “reinvent government” is a signal that representative political systems as we know them no longer meet the needs of the culture. From Dawn to Decadence dates the modern era from the Protestant Reformation and notes four great revolutions that have shaped the modern world—the religious, the monarchical, the liberal, and the social. At the end of the book, Barzun despairs that the Western canon will not be transmitted to future generations; in fact, he believes the transmission has already largely ceased. Barzun's deep concern over education—including the subjects taught and the process and purpose of teaching itself—extends back to his earliest work, including The Teacher in America (1945) and The Tyranny of Idealism in Education (1959). Barzun has also authored several works on such diverse subjects as Abraham Lincoln, crime detection, and rhetoric and research methods. The Modern Researcher (1957), which Barzun co-edited with Henry F. Graff, appeared in a fifth edition in 1992 and remains a respected introduction to the study of history.

Critical Reception

Barzun's erudite prose has held a well-regarded place in American letters for more than sixty years, occasionally sparking controversy but always inspiring respect. Reviewers have greatly admired his skill at structuring rhetorical arguments—he makes a general statement and then supports it with copious and well-reasoned specifics so the concept under discussion can be seen clearly or implemented unambiguously. Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence was widely praised as the climax of his literary career. Although some critics object to his low opinion of twentieth-century Western culture after the First World War, most reviewers comment favorably on Barzun's insights and the illuminating anecdotes in the work. In this and other volumes such as A Stroll with William James, Barzun is credited with bringing his subjects to life in a rich tapestry of serious learning and reflection. Critics have posited that with his scholarly roots buried so deeply in the nineteenth century, Barzun's opinions are often old-fashioned or dated. However, other reviewers have applauded Barzun for dismissing the theoretical approaches of deconstruction, postmodernism, and narrow academic preoccupations with race, class, and gender, and instead favoring well-structured, detached narrative histories that speak to the larger public. Despite his conservative view of education and culture, Barzun is regarded by many as a judicious critic whose common sense and broad-mindedness enable him to argue forcefully in defense of classical curricula and higher standards—in The American University, The Culture We Deserve, and Begin Here, for example—without appearing shrill. An honored elder statesman of American letters, Barzun continues to garner esteem for his lifelong commitment to scholarship and learning.

Principal Works

The French Race: Theories of Its Origins and Their Social and Political Implications Prior to the Revolution (nonfiction) 1932

Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (nonfiction) 1937

Of Human Freedom (nonfiction) 1939

Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (nonfiction) 1941

Romanticism and the Modern Ego (nonfiction) 1943

The Teacher in America [published in England as We Who Teach, 1946] (nonfiction) 1945

Berlioz and the Romantic Century [republished as Berlioz and His Century: An Introduction to the Age of Romanticism] (nonfiction) 1950...

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Richard Rorty (review date 9 May 1983)

SOURCE: “The Pragmatist,” in New Republic, May 9, 1983, pp. 32-4.

[In the following review of A Stroll with William James, Rorty discusses contradictions in James's philosophical positions and Barzun's inability to reconcile such fundamental oppositions.]

Everybody who reads William James's letters falls in love with the man. He seems the companion nobody ever had: the one who never gets depressed or angry or bored, is always honest and open, always thinks you interesting. Somehow James, in his early thirties, managed to shuck off all his neuroses, all those fantasies that lead the rest of us to distort and manipulate other people for our own...

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Michael Kellogg (review date 7 October 1983)

SOURCE: “Home-grown, Full-bodied Philosophy,” in Commonweal, October 7, 1983, pp. 541-2.

[In the following review of A Stroll with William James, Kellogg concludes that Barzun's enthusiasm and erudition inspires renewed respect for James, though Barzun's “wide-ranging” digressions cause his book to lack focus.]

“American philosopher,” like “English wine,” is close to a contradiction in terms. Despite the label, one expects little more than a watered-down import. All the more reason, then, to cherish those few products, like the philosophical writings of William James, that are both home-grown and full-bodied. Unfortunately, James, who died in...

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Alfred Kazin (review date 10 November 1983)

SOURCE: “The Exceptional William James,” in New York Review of Books, November 10, 1983, pp. 3-4, 6.

[In the following review of A Stroll with William James, Kazin discusses the development and distinctive qualities of James's philosophical thought.]

William James, dead these seventy-three years, is a living and much-cherished figure to Jacques Barzun, whose sparkling appreciation [in A Stroll with William James] honors his “mentor,” a man and thinker without a describable lapse who “knows better than anyone else the material and spiritual country I am traveling through.” Unlike all other philosophers Barzun likes to “read in,” James's...

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Louis Menand (review date 16 February 1987)

SOURCE: “Talk Talk,” in New Republic, February 16, 1987, pp. 28-33.

[In the following excerpt, Menand offers unfavorable assessment of A Word or Two Before You Go.]

Jacques Barzun, former dean, provost, and university professor at Columbia, is an authority often cited by [William] Safire when he wants to throw cold water on a usage but needs someone else to look like a pedant for doing it. For where Safire fiddles, Barzun burns. His brief pieces on language, [in A Word or Two Before You Go] written over many years and to meet a variety of occasions, attack, but with the prescriptive and proscriptive fervor missing from the “On Language” columns, the same...

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Michael Dirda (review date 16 July 1989)

SOURCE: “The Battle of the Books,” in Washington Post Book World, July 16, 1989, p. 5.

[In the following excerpt, Dirda discusses Barzun's disillusionment and contempt for contemporary culture in The Culture We Deserve.]

Books, like marriages, are rewarding in direct proportion to the passion we put into them. A critic like Roland Barthes could get more out of a half-baked Balzac novel than most of us will get out of a lifetime studying Madame Bovary. Better enthrallment to an adventure story than a bored skim through a masterpiece.

Still, for more than a hundred years humanists such as Matthew Arnold, Irving Babbitt, T.S. Eliot and Russell...

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Edmund Fuller (review date Spring 1990)

SOURCE: “Exeunt the Humanities?” in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. xxxviii, xl-xli.

[In the following review, Fuller offers a positive assessment of Barzun's “provocative, challenging, and occasionally startling assertions” in The Culture We Deserve.]

“Right now … one can ask whether all over the world the idea of a university has not been battered beyond hope of recovery for a long time.”

Those blunt words were not written by an outsider hostile to universities, or by an ideological disrupter from within, but by a man of impeccable credentials for appraising what passes currently as higher education. Their author...

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John P. Sisk (review date Spring 1990)

SOURCE: “Culture in the Eighties,” in Salmagundi, No. 87, Spring, 1990, pp. 360-68.

[In the following positive review of The Culture We Deserve, Sisk examines the philosophical and aesthetic perspective that informs Barzun's critique of intellectual laxity, relativism, and reductionism in contemporary art and thought.]

I began my long acquaintance with the work of Jacques Barzun in the fall of 1945 at West Palm Beach, an idyllic change from a previous assignment in the jungles of British Guiana. In the public library I found Romanticism and the Modern Ego and Darwin, Marx, Wagner. They were exactly what I needed after a four year sabbatical in...

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Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Spring 1990)

SOURCE: A review of The Culture We Deserve, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring, 1990, p. 64.

[In the following review of The Culture We Deserve, the critic characterizes Barzun's essays “breezy” but “refreshing.”]

Biting the hand that feeds one has become a favorite sport of several American scholars, who collect handsome royalty checks from the very mass marketing industry that they decry in their best sellers. Jacques Barzun, who engaged in the culture battles long before it became fashionable and lucrative, has joined the fray with his own collection of stimulating but ultimately frustrating essays. These pieces from the last...

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Sanford Pinsker (review date Fall-Winter 1990)

SOURCE: A review of The Culture We Deserve, in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 17, Nos. 2-3, Fall-Winter, 1990, pp. 211-12.

[In the following review of The Culture We Deserve, Pinsker expresses sympathy for “Barzun's heartfelt, uncompromisingly idealist pronouncements,” though finds little evidence that Barzun's hopes will be realized.]

The dozen essays collected here [in The Culture We Deserve] explore the gap between claim and performance in contemporary culture: art and literature, education and scholarship, philosophy and history. Not surprisingly, Barzun has sobering things to say about our current state of cultural affairs. For Barzun,...

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Jonathan Yardley (review date 21 April 1991)

SOURCE: “The Plight of Pedagogy,” in Washington Post Book World, April 21, 1991, p. 3.

[In the following review, Yardley offers a positive assessment of Begin Here.]

It is difficult to imagine a more pungent, perceptive or eloquent commentary on contemporary American education than this collection of 15 pieces [Begin Here] by Jacques Barzun. Written over the past four decades, but mostly of fairly recent vintage, these essays and speeches all boil down to the book's opening words: “Forget EDUCATION. Education is a result, a slow growth, and hard to judge. Let us talk rather about Teaching and Learning, a joint activity that can be provided for, though as a...

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Paul Shore (review date November-December 1991)

SOURCE: A review of The Culture We Deserve, in The Humanist, Vol. 51, No. 6, November-December, 1991, pp. 46-7.

[In the following positive review of The Culture We Deserve, Shore clarifies and defends Barzun's pessimistic view of contemporary thought, education, and art.]

A superficial family resemblance exists among a number of the educational documents to appear during the 1980s, among them the U.S. government study A Nation at Risk, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, Mortimer Adler's The Paideia Proposal, and E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy. Although each of these works differs significantly in emphasis, all...

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Wallace Fowlie (review date Winter 1992)

SOURCE: “From Apollinaire's Knee,” in American Scholar, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 138, 140-41.

[In the following review, Fowlie offers a favorable evaluation of An Essay on French Verse.]

No one title would be adequate to describe the contents of this small book [An Essay on French Verse]. Its author first carefully explains the rules of French prosody, and then he explores the changes it underwent in each century. The ten-syllable line of La Chanson de Roland in the eleventh century was recast into the twelve-syllable line, the alexandrine, in the thirteenth century. These two major types of lines remain the favorites in the nineteenth and...

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William H. Pritchard (review date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: “Art of the Difficult,” in American Scholar, Vol. 61, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 312-15.

[In the following review of Begin Here, Pritchard commends Barzun's pedagogic ideals and concurs with his negative critique of contemporary American education, though notes that Barzun's recommendations contain “an element of Old Codgerism.”]

It is almost half a century since Jacques Barzun published his wise and witty Teacher in America (1945). I was, briefly, a graduate student in philosophy at Columbia University when the book was republished eight years later (as one of the first paperback titles in Doubleday-Anchor's memorable venture), and although...

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Dudley Barlow (review date November 1992)

SOURCE: “Perennial Difficulties,” in Education Digest, Vol. 58, No. 2, November, 1992, pp. 39-40.

[In the following review, Barlow offers a positive assessment of Begin Here.]

I have just spent a few very enjoyable weeks in the company of a remarkable mind; I have been reading Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. This is a collection of 15 essays written over a number of years and published in this collection this year by The University of Chicago Press. I have been reading little sections to my car pool, to my departmental colleagues, and to my wife.

I admit freely that one reason I enjoyed...

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Herbert I. London (essay date May-June 1993)

SOURCE: “Jacques Barzun's American University,” in Society, Vol. 30, No. 4, May-June, 1993, pp. 71-82.

[In the following essay, London reconsiders the decline of contemporary university education a quarter century after the publication of Barzun's The American University.]

Jacques Barzun's work The American University, published in 1968, still stands as one of the most lucid, informative statements on the subject of the university ever written. With keen insights, he describes the university and its quintessential features, demarcating the ancestral, perhaps more congenial, university from the one that emerged in his day as teacher and administrator in the...

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Jacques Barzun with Sarah F. Golo (interview date 3 April 2000)

SOURCE: “PW Talks with Jacques Barzun,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 4, April 3, 2000, p. 69.

[In the following interview, Barzun discusses his notion of “culture” and “decadence” and the general thesis of From Dawn to Decadence.]

[Golo:] Your book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life is so wide-ranging, it covers everything from the literary to the culinary. How do you define “Culture”?

[Barzun:] Cultural history cannot be defined, because it really has no limits. “Culture” can be seen as high culture, the arts—generally. But anthropologists have changed all that. … When...

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Karl E. Meyer (review date May-June 2000)

SOURCE: “Venturing Provocative Judgments,” in New Leader, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 2, May-June, 2000, pp. 42-3.

[In the following review, Meyer offers a positive assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]

My spontaneous response upon learning of Jacques Barzun's hefty new work was delight and surprise that he is still with us and still scribbling. Born in France in 1907, formerly a professor of history and provost at Columbia University, author of Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950) and other important books, Barzun is seemingly the sole survivor of that once celebrated constellation on Morningside Heights: Lionel Trilling and Meyer Schapiro, Richard Hofstadter and...

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Jacques Barzun with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Mark LaFlaur (interview date 21 May 2000)

SOURCE: “The Writing Life: A Talk Between Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Jacques Barzun,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 21, 2000, pp. 3-4.

[In the following interview, Barzun comments on his definition of “decadence,” as elaborated in From Dawn to Decadence, and his view of current religious, geopolitical, literary, and historical trends that characterize the “boredom” and fragmentation of cultural decline.]

[The following introduction was written by Mark LaFlaur.]

It is difficult now to imagine an age when a weekly newsmagazine would print a cover story on “America and the Intellectual,” illustrated with 13 commissioned...

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William H. McNeill (review date 21 May 2000)

SOURCE: “What It All Means: Why Jacques Barzun Is America's Greatest Teacher,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 21, 2000, pp. 1-3.

[In the following review of From Dawn to Decadence, McNeill praises Barzun's treatment of Western cultural history from the Reformation to the First World War, but opposes Barzun's disdain for twentieth-century culture and his bleak view of the future.]

“The bulk of the book … is a delight because it presents a strong character full of surprises. He is learned but practical, unmistakably of his time … conservative but unconventional. His genius is in common sense … unusual judgments made by clear-eyed observation and...

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Roger Shattuck (review date 29 June 2000)

SOURCE: “Decline and Fall?” in New York Review of Books, June 29, 2000, pp. 55-8.

[In the following review of From Dawn to Decadence, Shattuck finds flaws in Barzun's historical periodization and takes issue with his underestimation of developments in twentieth-century art and history.]


“All is true.” In the original edition of Le père Goriot, Balzac left this terse epigraph in English. It is the subtitle or alternate title of Henry VIII, an unfinished play uncertainly attributed to Shakespeare. The epigraph acknowledges Balzac's profound admiration of the Bard. At the same time, it affirms the cumulative and...

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Sebastian Mallaby (review date 2 July 2000)

SOURCE: “Look Back in Wonder,” in Washington Post Book World, July 2, 2000, p. 8.

[In the following review, Mallaby offers a positive assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]

At 92, Jacques Barzun has earned the right to be eccentric. He serves up a book [From Dawn to Decadence] 800 pages long but proudly saves space by writing “16C” instead of “sixteenth century.” He has spent most of his working life in New York, that center of hard-selling self-promotion; but he begins his opus by stating grimly, “I do not expect the reader to be steadily grateful.” His focus on Western civilization is almost gratuitously dismissive of other cultures; at one...

(The entire section is 1010 words.)

Suzanne Fields (review date 3 July 2000)

SOURCE: “A Turning Point for Moral Decay?” in Insight on the News, Vol. 16, No. 25, July 3, 2000, p. 48.

[In the following review, Fields offers a positive assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]

When a book criticizing our current culture runs to more than 800 pages, with 798 footnotes, and would break bones if you dropped it on your foot, it's more than a little surprising to find it on the New York Times best-seller list.

In fact, the popularity of such a book may be enough to refute its central thesis—that the last century began a steep and irrevocable decline in what we've honored as Western cultural life for the past 500 years....

(The entire section is 537 words.)

David Gress (review date November 2000)

SOURCE: “A Rich and Tangled Web,” in World and I, Vol. 15, No. 11, November, 2000, p. 235.

[In the following review, Gress offers a positive evaluation of From Dawn to Decadence.]

Seven decades of life, reading, learning, and experience has gone into From Dawn to Decadence, an impressively energetic, exhilarating, and spirited work of a wise man and great scholar, Jacques Barzun. Seven adult decades, that is; Barzun is in his nineties and presents this latest and largest of his works as the fruit of a lifetime. And it is no monument to crusty pedantry or grab bag of unconnected anecdotes. It is a vigorous chronicle full of strong and convincing themes, an...

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John J. Reilly (review date November 2000)

SOURCE: “The End of History?” in First Things, No. 107, November, 2000, pp. 43-4.

[In the following review, Reilly offers a favorable assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]

From Dawn to Decadence is one of those wonderful books that cannot be categorized. Some reviewers have compared it to The Education of Henry Adams, the great intellectual autobiography that seemed to sum up the last fin-de-siècle. The comparison does no injustice to either work. Jacques Barzun was born in 1907, and so has lived through a not insignificant slice of the period he covers, but even he did not know Descartes personally. And yet in some ways From Dawn to...

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Further Reading


Allen, Gay Wilson. “An American Philosopher.” Washington Post Book World (29 May 1983): 6.

In this review of A Stroll with William James, Allen discusses James's philosophical approach and pathbreaking contribution to psychology.

Birnbaum, Milton. “Teaching and Learning Revisited.” Modern Age 35, No. 1 (September 1992): 73.

A review of Begin Here.

Casement, William. “Traditionalism Well Spoken.” College Teaching 39, No. 4 (Fall 1991): 161-2.

A review of Begin Here.

Everdell, William R. “Idea Man.” New York...

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