Jacques Barzun dies at 104; helped found field of cultural history

Jacques Barzun, a courtly French American scholar with a bracing knowledge of Western civilization who helped found the field of cultural history and in his 90s wrote the epic if improbable bestseller “From Dawn to Decadence,” has died. He was 104.

Barzun, who taught for nearly 50 years at Columbia University, died Thursday in San Antonio, where he retired after seven decades in New York. His death was confirmed by his son-in-law, Garvin Parfit.

Hailed as “one of the last thoroughgoing generalists,” the historian and critic wrote dozens of books and hundreds of essays on topics that reflected a wide-ranging intellect. His areas of expertise encompassed education, philosophy, etymology, music, baseball, ghost stories and detective novels.

“Barzun is essentially a historian, but a most unusual historian,” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., said some years ago, “because he is such a master of so many diverse forms of human expression … and he understands them all, as a historian must, as revelations of the society that produced them.”


Barzun’s career culminated in the 2000 publication of “From Dawn to Decadence,” a survey of Western civilization from the Renaissance to the end of the 20th century that traces the development of ideas such as emancipation, abstraction, individualism and secularism across four major eras and examines the collapse of tradition in modern times. Topping 800 pages, it was widely praised by reviewers, stayed on best-seller lists for months and was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize.

“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 and appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1956 as an example of “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 Barzun a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, and said “few academics of the last century have equaled his output and his influence.”


The son of Henri Martin Barzun, a writer and diplomat, and Anna-Rose Barzun, he was born in Creteil, France, on Nov. 30, 1907, and grew up in the company of many of the greatest artists and writers of the modernist era, including Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound and Jean Cocteau. He described his childhood in a “nursery of living culture” as a happy time in which he learned that “making works of art by exerting genius was the usual occupation of adults.”

But World War I shattered that world. “By the age of ten,” he later wrote, “my words and attitudes betrayed suicidal thoughts; it appeared that I was ‘ashamed’ to be still alive.” After the war, in 1923, he moved with his parents to the United States and settled in New York.

At 15, he entered Columbia and by his early 20s was a history instructor there. He remained at the university until he retired, in 1975, but would be long remembered for the “Colloquium on Important Books” he taught with Trilling.

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 Associated Press. “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” summed up a lifetime of thinking, offering a rounded, leisurely and conservative tour of Western civilization, with many digressions printed in the margins. Barzun guided readers from the religious debates of the Reformation to contemporary debates on beliefs of any kind.

Among his more than 30 books was “Teacher in America,” a classic analysis of education and culture. With Trilling, he helped found the Readers’ Subscription Book Club in the 1950s, a high-brow response to the Book-of-the-Month Club that lasted 12 years.

Barzun also edited many books 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.”


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