Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012

New Criterion, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012


Although he was a frequent subject of reviews, reconsiderations, and other commentary in The New Criterion, the celebrated writer and scholar Jacques Barzun, who died in October at 104, contributed only one essay to our pages. It was a review of Hector Berlioz's opera Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera. That was in 1984 our second season, and Barzun had already been a grand old man of American letters for some years.

Born in France in 1907, Barzun had been a presence on the American intellectual and academic scene since the 1950s. From his perch at Columbia University, where he collaborated with the critic Lionel Trilling on a humanities course that deeply influenced a generation of students, Barzun (like Trilling) was part of the intellectual conscience of his age. He was a public intellectual before that role had been hollowed out by celebrity and the demotic faddishness of the 1960s. His scholarly work in subjects like French poetry consistently won plaudits. Writing in these pages in 1991 about Barzun's Essay on French Verse, the poet William Jay Smith noted that although "there have been other treatises on French versification for the English reader ... none has been so thorough, so well reasoned, so free of academic jargon, and so available as this one." "It is amazing" Smith went on, "that Pro fessor Barzun, now in his eighties, should have produced so youthful and vigorous a book, an objective study that is at the same time so personal a document."

That sense of amazement regularly greeted Barzun's work in the last decades of his life. He was the author of more than thirty books, and his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, wasn't published until 2000, when Barzun was ninety-three.

Not that Barzun was a late bloomer. Far from it. His early best-sellers--books like Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941), Teacher in America (1945), and The House of Intellect (1959)--were part of an intellectual conversation that bridged the gap between academic and general culture in a way that fewer and fewer writers seem to manage. Barzun was an ornament to the faculty of Columbia University, a scholar and pedagogue of rare authority, but he was also a man who spoke, if not to the masses, exactly, then at least to a public--back then, it was a large public--of citizens who cared about the shape and direction of American culture. In 1956, when Time magazine ran a piece about the role of intellectuals in American cultural life, it was the French-born Jacques Barzun whom the editors chose for their cover.

Barzun was an academic expert who spoke the language of everyday life. He wrote beautifully, always with a premium on clarity and understated elegance, and turned out several books on the craft of writing and editing. (Young people who think they want to be writers, he wisely observed in one of these books, should ponder carefully the question of whether they really want to write or whether they merely want to have written: it is an important, if often unheeded, distinction.) William James ("the most inclusive mind I can listen to") was Barzun's favorite philosopher, Berlioz his favorite composer. He helped introduce America audiences to the robust work of the English essayist Walter Bagehot through his introduction to Bagehot's late masterpiece Physics and Politics. Above all, perhaps, Barzun was a bellwether in what have come to be called "the culture wars" Already in The House of Intellect, Barzun anatomized that species of intellectual antinomianism, then in its infancy, which substituted terms like "transgressive" and "challenging" for mastery. It was, Barzun wrote, little more than "directionless quibble."

Although deeply immersed in intellectual matters himself, Barzun seems never to have succumbed to the intellectual's chief occupational temptation of mistaking abstractions for the realities they adumbrate. This resistance had stylistic as well as substantive consequences.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.