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. …