Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.