Jacques Barzun

National Humanities Medal


Jacques Barzun is many people’s idea of a scholar and intellectual. He is a cultural historian, and was, indeed, an early leader in that field. What is cultural history? For one thing, it is not political history. Barzun is an American of European origin. (You might say that America is a country of European origin.) He gives you worldliness and refinement without airs.

He was born outside Paris in 1907. Those born the same year include W. H. Auden, Frida Kahlo, and John Wayne. The Dreyfus affair had come to an end the year before. Barzun’s parents were intellectuals and aesthetes, at the center of the Modernist movement. Everyone came by their home: Apollinaire, Duchamp, and Pound, just to name three. Apollinaire taught little Jacques how to read a watch. In an interview last year, Barzun said that he grew up thinking that “writing was the only career. It had a naturalness that nothing else held for me.”

An important influence on him was his great-grandmother, born in 1830. To Jacques, 1830 seemed as distant as the Middle Ages. Every day, he would stop at his great-grandmother’s apartment on his way home from school. She would give him a piece of chocolate and a bun, and talk about history: the recent history of France. She was a wonderful talker, never boring her audience (of one). Barzun says that she planted in him the historical bug.

He came to America at the age of 12 to attend a prep school. He had read James Fenimore Cooper, and “more or less expected to see Indians and cowboys riding down Broadway.” At age fifteen, he started Columbia College, where he would spend the next fifty-plus years. He was valedictorian of the class of 1927. Barzun and some friends ran what he would call a “perfectly legal and honest tutoring mill”: Ghosts, Inc. “No subjects were barred. If a retired minister came who wanted to read Hamlet in Esperanto (one did), we supplied an instructor.”

Barzun became a professor, a dean, and a provost. He taught a famous Great Books course with Lionel Trilling, who had been an undergraduate with him. They did not know each other well in college, but became fast friends on the faculty. Before they published their books, they exchanged each other’s manuscripts to read.

Norman Podhoretz, the intellectual and writer, recalls Barzun as an excellent and demanding teacher. “He seemed to know everything. He was incredibly learned.” Barzun appeared on the cover of Time magazine, no less. That was in June 1956. The magazine described him as a “tall, slender, willowy man,” and a “brilliant, courtly, unruffable scholar.” After he retired from Columbia in 1975, Barzun served as a literary adviser to Charles Scribner’s Sons. In 2003, George W. Bush hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck.

Barzun has written about forty books, from The French Race in 1932 to his summa, From Dawn to Decadence, in 2000. Actually, there have been a few volumes since then. His books cover an unsurprisingly broad range of subjects. In the 1940s, Marx, Darwin, Wagner was a bestseller. In the 1950s, The House of Intellect was. He is a particular expert on Berlioz, a composer he all but revived. For years, the tastemakers had little time for Berlioz. They had little time for Romanticism in general. Barzun, the child of Modernists, explained, defended, and elevated Romanticism.

He also had a serious taste for baseball and detective novels. In 1961, he edited an anthology called The Delights of Detection. And probably the most famous words he ever uttered are these: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” They are inscribed on a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

When Marxism engulfed academia, he would have none of it. “They deplored my blindness,” he said of his more with-it colleagues. He shook his head, gently, at those who were blasting away at America. “They forget that the true creator’s role, even in its bitterest attack, is to make us understand or endure life better. Our intellectuals do neither when they entice us to more self-contempt.” He never stopped believing that Western civilization, for all its faults, was a great and glorious thing. And he had a particular admiration for his adopted country. He once remarked that Americans were “too busy to brood.”

In his centennial year of 2007, there were many tributes—including one from the critic John Simon: “That Barzun has reached age one hundred is further proof of his ability to pack some of his immortality even into his mortality.” He was a master and delight in the classroom. And, thanks to all those books, and his voluminous articles, anyone can enroll.

By Jay Nordlinger

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.