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 was 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 received 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 recovered 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 Barzun 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.”
Associated Press writers Michelle L. Price in Phoenix and Nicole Evatt in New York contributed to this report.