Jacques Barzun
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Jacques Barzun, a pioneering cultural historian, reigning public intellectual and longtime Ivy League professor who became a best-selling author in his 90s with the acclaimed "From Dawn to Decadence," has died. He was 104.

Barzun, who taught for nearly 50 years at Columbia University, passed away Thursday evening in San Antonio, where he had lived in recent years, his son-in-law Gavin Parfit said.

Praised by Cynthia Ozick as among "the last of the thoroughgoing generalists," the tall, courtly Barzun wrote dozens of books and essays on everything from philosophy and music to baseball and detective novels.

In 2000, he capped his career with "From Dawn to Decadence," a survey of Western civilization from the Renaissance to the end of the 20th century. The length topped 800 pages, and the theme was uninspiring - the collapse of traditions in modern times - yet it received wide acclaim from reviewers, stayed on best-seller lists for months and wa s nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize.

Even the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards said he was reading it.

"The whole thing is a surprise, because scholarship is not exactly the thing people run after these days, or perhaps at any time," Barzun told The Associated Press in 2000.

Along with Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald and others, the French immigrant was a prominent thinker during the Cold War era, making occasional television appearances and even appearing in 1956 on the cover of Time magazine, which cited him as representing "a growing host of men of ideas who not only have the respect of the nation, but who return the compliment."

In 2003, President George W. Bush awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, praising Barzun as "a thinker of great discernment and integrity. ... Few academics of the last century have equaled his output and his influence." In 2010, he re ceived a National Humanities Medal.

Barzun had firsthand knowledge of much of the 20th century and secondhand knowledge of a good part of the 19th century. His great-grandmother, born in 1830, would give him chocolate and tell him stories, an experience that helped inspire him to become a historian.

A scholar's son, Barzun was born in Creteil, France, in 1907 and grew up in a household where Modernism was the great subject and visitors included Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound and Guillame Apollinaire, upon whose knee he once sat. But World War I drove the family out of the country and across the ocean to the United States.

"The outbreak of war in August 1914 and the nightmare that ensued put an end to all innocent joys and assumptions," Barzun later wrote. "By the age of ten - as I was later told - my words and attitudes betrayed suicidal thoughts; it appeared that I was 'ashamed' to be still alive."

Reading consoled him, especially "Hamlet," but he never rec overed his early "zest for life." In 1990, he defined himself as a "spirited" pessimist, explaining that he retained a "vivid sight of an earlier world, soon followed by its collapse in wretchedness and folly."

Having learned English in part by reading James Fenimore Cooper, Barzun entered Columbia as an undergraduate at age 15 and was in his early 20s when the school hired him as an instructor in the history department. He remained with Columbia until his retirement, in 1975, and would be long remembered for the "Colloquium on Important Books" he taught with Trilling, with one former student calling Barzun "a towering charismatic figure who aroused the kind of fierce loyalties that the medieval masters must have."

Allen Ginsberg, another Barzun student, once joked that his former professor was a master of "politeness."

Barzun's greatest influence was on the writing of cultural history; he helped invent it. As a student at Columbia he was among the first to integrate the narration of wars and government with the evolution of art, science, education and fashion.

"It was partly my upbringing, being among a group of artists of every kind," he told the AP. "When I became interested in history, it seemed that social and cultural elements were perfectly real things that existed as forces. Diplomacy and force of arms were treated as the substance of history, and there was this other realm missing."

"From Dawn to Decadence," summing up a lifetime of thinking, offered a rounded, leisurely and conservative tour of Western civilization, with numerous digressions printed in the margins. Barzun guided readers from the religious debates of the Reformation to the contemporary debates on beliefs of any kind.

"Distrust (was) attached to anything that retained a shadow of authoritativeness - old people, old ideas, old conceptions of what a leader or a teacher might do," he wrote of the late 20th century.

Barzun told the AP in 2003 that he remembered coming to the United States after World War I and finding a country that lived up to its own happy, informal reputation. "It was openhearted, amiable and courteous in manner, ready to try anything new," he said. "But many of those things have gone to pieces, for understandable reasons."

He contributed to such magazines as Harper's and The New Republic and he published more than 30 books, notably "Teacher in America," a classic analysis of education and culture. In the early 1950s, he and Trilling helped found the Readers' Subscription Book Club, a highbrow response to the Book-of-the-Month Club that lasted 12 years.

Barzun also edited many books, including a compilation of short detective stories, and wrote a memorable essay on baseball, in which he advised that "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." Those words eventually made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., for which Barz un later autographed a bat celebrating his 100th birthday.

Barzun had three children with his first wife, Marianna Lowell, who died in 1978. He married Marguerite Davenport two years later. He also is survived by 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, according to his daughter, Isabel Barzun.

"He was a gentleman. He was a scholar. He was refined, he was kind. He was enormously generous in spirit," said Parfit, his son-in-law. "He was one of a kind."


HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer

Associated Press writers Michelle L. Price in Phoenix and Nicole Evatt in New York contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Published in San Antonio Express-News on Oct. 26, 2012.
Memories & Condolences
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61 entries
June 18, 2017
Valenda Newell
January 9, 2015
Please accept my sincere condolences and sincere prayers that go out to the surviving family and friends. May the God of comfort continue to bless you and yours especially after such an untimely loss of a very precious life please accept my deepest sympathies. (2 Cor. 1:2, 3).
March 5, 2014
A gracious and respectable person whose work has done so much to bring so much joy to many of us in these troubled times hard to deal with (2 Tim 3:1). Perhaps more will continue to have positive experiences from a wonderful work that has an impactful contribution to life and its anxieties.
June 12, 2013
Having him here in San Antonio was like having a bright light in a dark room.
He will be missed. He was a true intellectual, quite a rare thing in San Antonio.
James Newman
April 16, 2013
The loss of his thoughts and his voice leaves the world a sadder, poorer and less literate place.
Tom Wright
November 5, 2012
I am so sorry about the loss of this great man. He will not be forgotten because his words and ideas will live on. I send you my deepest sympathy and love,
Margaret King Stanley
November 4, 2012
Columbia has lost a giant.
Laurance Guido MD
November 4, 2012
We were very privileged to have Dr. Barzun at our "Classic Books" meeting one day, and to have an autographed copy of his "From Dawn to Decadence" in our Northwood Presbyterian Church Library.
Alice Sackett
November 1, 2012
I was a student attending Prof. Barzun's graduate history department class on Social and Cultural History of Europe in 1950/51. At first his lectures were far more learned and erudite than I could comprehend. By the end of the course, happily, I belive that I could understand most, but not necessarily all of his resoning, knowledge, content and linkages. Yet I remain to this day a full admirer of his teaching and writing. Murray Feshbach, Ph.D., Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC
November 1, 2012
October 31, 2012
Columbia University Graduate, SEAS, 2003....
He was an inspiration, I could only hope to live such a long, useful life and leave a legacy as great as his....
Arthur Michael Ambrosino
October 31, 2012
I had the delight and pleasure to work for Mr. Barzun for several years. He always showed me the highest standard of ethics and business propriety. He was an inspiration. My sincere condolences to Mrs. Barzun and family.
David Lefton
October 31, 2012
As an Black man who grow up in the sixties, when it was fashionable to think of myself as an African rather than an American, the writings of Prof. Barzun forced me to celebrate the complexity of my Afro-American identity, birthright and heritage. Thank you professor. May you forever dwell on the Mount Olympus of humanity's greatest minds.
Eugene Holley, Jr.
October 29, 2012
I am so sorry for the loss of your loved one.Please find peace and comfort in Psalms 65:2.
October 29, 2012
I am sorry for your loss. God never allows the righteous to totter, for He is a refuge and strength.
October 29, 2012
Heartfelt condolences to family and loved ones on your loss. May the God of all comfort be with you.
October 29, 2012
My Condolences to the Barzun Family. In your time of grief, May the God of loving-kindness and comfort, comfort your family. Psalm 119:50,76
October 28, 2012
To the the family of Jacques Barzun - May God give you peace and comfort through his word and the Lord Jesus Christ during this time of sorrow, I know that he will be missed by many.
October 28, 2012
My deepest condolences are with you at this time of need. Know that god
feels your pain as well. Go to him in prayer and he will comfort you very


Ms J
October 28, 2012
I continue to read his works and the works he wrote about. He clarified complicated ideas, which helped me improve my relationship with the world around me.
I hope GOD'S COUNTRY AND MINE gets republished.
I shall rise now and take another stroll with Barzun and James.
David Dannenbaum
October 28, 2012
Harrisville Institute for Cultural learning
Professor Barzun Thank you, For making it possible for me to "Stroll" with you. Through your books I found "a quite self confidence ", purpose and meaning in life. I am proud to be both a generalist and Amateur . Roger lemons
roger lemons
October 27, 2012
I have read almost everything he has written (many times)and wish for more.
larry newberry
October 27, 2012
What a wonderful human being--was touched by him through his writings.
Nancy Kwallek
October 27, 2012
The sky's spontaneity has much to say.
Stunned when I read THE HOUSE OF INTELLECT in NYC 1971, I learned how to think seeing the whole picture develop from its details. Mr. Barzun will always be one of my heroes.
Fritz Swischer
October 27, 2012
Here's one of my favorite passages of my grandfather's, from a lecture he gave in 1969 entitled "Present Day Thoughts on the Quality of Life." He closed the lecture with these words:

"What the future will be is not the business of an historian to say. But whether the future lies with or without industry, with or without democracy, with or without science and technology, it is at least conceivable that the future will be without them, either through catastrophe or willful rejection. No matter. What is certain is that the desire not for life alone, not for brutish life, but for a special quality in life will not cease, even for the last shivering inhabitant of a devastated planet. That desire is planted deep, and it seeks its fulfillment, which is what makes humanity other than animal."
Charles Barzun
October 27, 2012
God bless ~
October 27, 2012
I am so sorry for the loss of your loved one. Please find peace and comfort in Psalms 65:2.
October 27, 2012
Please accept my deep sorrow for the loss of your loved one. May you all draw close to the God of comfort at this time. James 4:8
October 27, 2012
He left a legacy .
mark stern
October 27, 2012
My condolences to the Barzun family. May you find comfort in prayer at this sad time. Psalms 65:2
October 27, 2012
Modern culture is in mourning because her eldest son is no more. Toutes mes condoleances a votre famille. RIP Dr. Barzun.
Pierre C
October 26, 2012
Dear Marguerite, I was so sad to hear of your loss. You and your family are in my prayers. Your friend from OLLU, Martha
Martha Tevis
October 26, 2012
Jacques Barzun changed my life when I was in college... I've given out 7 copies of From Dawn to Decadence as presents to people (and recommended it many times more). I just wish I could have told him how much I appreciated his work personally.

I'm very sorry for your family's loss.
Avi Conzevoy
October 26, 2012
Barun family trust in the hearer of prayer...before him pour out your heart God is a refuge for us. Psalm 68:2. I extend my condolences to the family.
October 26, 2012
Requiem æternam dona ei, Domine.
Et lux perpetua luceat ei.
Requiescat in pace. Amen.
Wladyslaw Kordas
October 26, 2012
To the family. I am sorry for your loss. May the God of comfort grant you peace in this time of your grief.
October 26, 2012
My condolences to Mrs Barzun and his descendants.
My French mother, born in 1924, immigrated to the USA to join my American father. When I asked her what France has contributed to modern America, her assured reply was "Jacques Barzun." He was the greatest American humanist of the 20th century.
philip meguire
October 26, 2012
I read Barzun's American University during my first term in 1972 of stepping into a faculty position. He was my guiding light and steadfast pillar, as I observed the steady decay of intellectual life in a university.
Seppo Korpela
October 26, 2012
October 26, 2012
I met Jacques Barzun in 1951, then knew him, as I had met him, in his writing. His good nature and clear thinking helped me through my youth and now through each day, while I am about a year away from 80. He was and is sane, clear and loving. An exemplary man.
Howard Frankl
October 26, 2012
It may seem trite to put 'he changed my life', but so many can agree he did. Whatever skills I have as a historian, as an active participant in what matters I owe to him. Dr Barzun set very high standards, as should be the case, and my life will be an ongoing effort to reach them.
Nathan P. Bridle
October 26, 2012
I was acquainted with Barzun's House of Intellect, in graduate school, Chapel Hill. I also know his grandson Henri, Concord, Mass. He would be proud!
October 26, 2012
Jacques was quite simply the greatest man of letters I've ever known. He and my late father were colleagues at Scribners on a plane way above mere mortals. Sharing in that experience and knowing him, and benefiting from his editorial eagle eye and perfect pitch are treasures that last a lifetime. God bless Jacques and all his family.
Charles Scribner III
October 26, 2012
To me Jacques was synonymous with civilization. It is therefore hard to believe that the latter can continue without the former. It will, of course, but it will be diminished.
Anne Fadiman
October 26, 2012
To the family of Jacques Barzun, Death is never pleasant,may God, who give us peace be with your famil at this time.Revalations chapter 21:4 gives us all hope for the future.
Brenda Scott
October 26, 2012
San Antonio and the world have lost their greatest thinker, writer, historian, theorist, and critic. We are immeasurably richer because of him, and can only do justice by multiplying his ideas.
Eric Robert Morse
October 26, 2012
Jacques Barzun was my mentor and friend, largely by correspondence, for well over forty years. The tributes rightly praise his encyclopedic mind, his intellectual generosity, his wide-ranging curiosity, his embodiment of excellence. Let us not forget that joined to his remarkably well-stocked mind, his sense of fairness, his delight in debate, was what I would call his sense of mirth. "From Dawn to Decadence" may portray decline, but as he observed it, Jacques always seemed cheerful, and amused.

Peter Bloom
Grace Jarcho Ross 1933 Professor of Humanities
Smith College
Peter Bloom
October 26, 2012
Farewell to a hero. Condolences to his family and friends.
Doug Brown
October 26, 2012
What a nice tribute to a man who gave his all in whatever he tried. My deepest condolences to the Barzun Family and all who stayed close by him in all his trials. Take comfort in the promise God gives us, that one day, no resident will say "I am sick" but all can look forward to the opportunity to live forever.(John 17:3)
October 26, 2012
Rest in Peace, dear friend. Ruth and I shall miss you, terribly.
Dr. Marshall Thomas
October 26, 2012
Bernard A. Weisberger My condolences to the immediate family, and to the huge family of all those of us who found, in a phrase he sometimes used himself, "pleasure and profit" in his explorations and expositions of our multifaceted culture
October 26, 2012
I am immensely saddened that he is not with us any more. I still cannot believe it.
Monir Tayeb (Scotland)
October 26, 2012
I've studied with him since the 40s, CBS Invitation to Learning, his Lowell lectures at the Boston Public Library, and the Barzun-Trilling seminar. Fare Forward.
Ted Price
October 26, 2012
May his great soul rest with all the souls of the faithful departed. +
Joe Lowrey
October 26, 2012
Professor Barzun was a legend when I attended Columbia College. However, I never met him in person until many years later, when he graced us with his presence at a Columbia alumni gathering in Washington DC. Au revoir to a great man whose light will continue to illuminate all who read his many works.

Roy Russo, 1956C
October 26, 2012
Reading Jacques Barzun changed my life. His wise words gave me the intellectual light and nourishment to grow as a thinker and citizen.
Christopher Reid
October 26, 2012
That Dr. Barzun's mind remained so keen for years following his hundredth birthday is something we all must celebrate. I am sorry he won't be here to enjoy his 105th birthday this November 30th. He has left so much for us to treasure, and to emulate, that we can only be thankful that he had so much time to educate us and to teach us valuable lessons in civility.

My condolences to Dr. Barzun's family and his many close and dear friends.

May he rest in eternal peace.
Seth Guggenheim
October 26, 2012
A wonderful man and mind, he will be missed, and his influence will grow. As he "strolled" with William James, so generations yet unborn will learn the benefits of strolling with Jacques Barzun.
Christopher Faille
October 26, 2012
He was indeed unique: both a great and good man.
Robert Morris
October 26, 2012
"Sitting sided by side with Jacques at the head of a long table week after week made the intellectual ground on which I walked and the intellectual air I breathed." So Lionel Trilling. And so, I know, many of us reading Jacques' many books over many years. Many thanks and much love, Jacques, and condolences "to all whom it may concern."
Leo Wong
October 26, 2012
Mr. Barzun was an inspiration and guide to me. We never met but we touched.
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