Authors: Jacques Barzun

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French-born American historian and educator

Author Works


The French Race: Theories of Its Origins and Their Social and Political Implications Prior to the Revolution, 1932

Race: A Study in Modern Superstition, 1937 (revised as Race: A Study in Superstition, 1956)

Of Human Freedom, 1939

Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, 1941

Romanticism and the Modern Ego, 1943, revised 1961 (as Classic, Romantic, and Modern)

Interpretation of History, 1943 (with Hajo Holborn, Herbert Heaton, Dumas Malone, and George La Piana)

Introduction to Naval History, 1944 (with Paul H. Beik, George Crothers, and E. O. Golob)

The Teacher in America, 1945 (published in England as We Who Teach, 1946)

Berlioz and the Romantic Century, 1950 (revised as Berlioz and His Century: An Introduction to the Age of Romanticism, 1962)

God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words, 1954

Music in American Life, 1956

The Energies of Art: Studies of Authors, Classic and Modern, 1956

The Modern Researcher, 1957 (with Henry F. Graff)

Lincoln, the Literary Genius, 1959

The House of Intellect, 1959

The Tyranny of Idealism in Education, 1959

Science, the Glorious Entertainment, 1964

The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going, 1968

On Writing, Editing, and Publishing: Essays Explicative and Horatory, 1971

A Catalogue of Crime, 1971 (with Wendell Hertig Taylor)

Written Word, 1971 (with Sheridan Baker and I. A. Richards)

The Use and Abuse of Art, 1974

Clio and the Doctors: Psycho-History, Quanto-History, and History, 1974

Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, 1975

Lincoln’s Philosophic Vision, 1982

A Stroll with William James, 1983

A Word or Two Before You Go . . . , 1986

Scholarship Today: The Humanities and Social Sciences, 1987 (with Jaroslav Pelikan and John Hope Franklin)

Literature in Listz’s Mind and Work, 1987

An Essay on French Verse for Readers of English Poetry, 1991

From Dawn to Decadence: Five Hundred Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, 2000

Edited Texts:

Pleasures of Music: A Reader’s Choice of Great Writing About Music and Musicians, from Cellini to Bernard Shaw, 1952

Selected Letters, 1953 (by George Gordon, Lord Byron)

Faust: A Tragedy, Part I, 1955 (by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

The Delights of Detection, 1957

Modern American Usage, 1966

Burke and Hare: The Resurrection Men, 1974

Classic Stories of Crime and Detection, 1976 (with Wendell Hertig Taylor)

European Writers, 1983


Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, 1954 (of Gustave Flaubert)

Rameau’s Nephew, and Other Works, 1956 (of Denis Diderot)

Evenings with the Orchestra, 1956 (of Hector Louis Berlioz)

The Plays of Georges Courteline, Volume I, 1961 (with Albert Bernel)


Jacques Martin Barzun has been an influential American cultural historian and social critic with an exceptionally long literary career. The French-born Barzun’s father, Henri-Martin Barzun, was a civil servant in the French ministry of labor. The elder Barzun was also a writer, and many prominent authors and artists visited the family home. In 1917, the French government sent Henri-Martin Barzun on a mission to the United States. The young Jacques moved there in 1920. Still a teenager, Jacques Barzun enrolled in Columbia University in New York in 1923. He would continue to be associated with Columbia for the rest of his life.{$I[A]Barzun, Jacques}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Barzun, Jacques}{$I[tim]1907;Barzun, Jacques}

Jacques Barzun

(Jacques Barzun)

He took his bachelor’s degree from Columbia in 1927 and then began teaching and graduate study at the same institution. He received a Ph.D. degree in 1932. His dissertation was published as his first book, The French Race: Theories of Its Origins and Their Social and Political Implications Prior to the Revolution. In this book, Barzun examines how the idea of race had developed historically in French thought and how this idea had shaped political and social behavior. This theme of the historical emergence of the idea of race, an idea that Barzun saw as misleading and dangerous, became the basis of his second book, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition. These two books were timely in their topic because the Nazi Party had risen to power in Germany during these years, advocating racial doctrines derived from the historical influences described by Barzun.

While teaching at Columbia, Barzun came into contact with prominent New York intellectuals. The literary critic Lionel Trilling became his friend and collaborator when the two taught a “great books” class in 1934. Barzun and his first wife, Marianna, frequently socialized with Trilling and his wife, Diana Trilling, also a renowned literary critic.

Barzun’s third book, Of Human Freedom, also treated the historical currents of his day. Written on the eve of World War II, the book offered a defense of democracy in the face of the absolutist doctrines of Nazism and Fascism. The political ideas in this book were inspired by the late nineteenth century American psychologist and philosopher William James, who formulated a version of the philosophy of pragmatism and saw American democracy as a flawed but practical way of meeting the challenges of political life.

Darwin, Marx, Wagner was Barzun’s first best-seller. It was a critical examination of the three nineteenth century figures who had shaped much of the modern era’s approaches to biology, politics and society, and music. Barzun’s interest in education led him to publish a number of works on teaching, including The Teacher in America, The House of Intellect, and The American University. In these books, he was critical of progressive education and supported the ideal of education in liberal arts in favor of vocational education.

Although he always considered himself primarily a teacher, Barzun’s interest in shaping intellectual life went beyond his own classroom and even beyond his own books. Together with his Columbia colleague Lionel Trilling and the poet W. H. Auden, Barzun formed the Reader’s Subscription Book Club in 1951. The three men of letters made selections of recent historical and literary works and made these available to club members at discount prices. Each month, one of the three would write an essay on the club’s main selection to be printed in the monthly newsletter.

Barzun served Columbia as dean of graduate faculties from 1955 to 1958 and dean of faculties and provost from 1958 to 1967. He was named Seth Low Professor of History in 1960. In 1975, he finally retired from Columbia’s active faculty and became an emeritus professor. In his retirement, though, he took up a second career as literary consultant to the publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons.

The prolific Barzun managed one of his most impressive achievements when, at the age of ninety-two, he published From Dawn to Decadence, an massive overview of five centuries of Western cultural history that he had begun writing when he was eighty-four. In this book, he regarded the modern period of history in the West as having begun in the sixteenth century. He divided this era into four stages. The first stage lasted from the Protestant reformation sparked by Martin Luther to the scientific revolution of Sir Isaac Newton at the end of the seventeenth century. The second stage began with the rise of the nation state during the time of French king Louis XIV and ended with the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. The third stretched from the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment to the appearance of Cubism in art and thought in the decade before World War I. The fourth and last stage lasted through the World Wars through the opening of the twenty-first century. Barzun argued that by the time at which he was writing, the modern culture of the West had spent itself and had become empty, self-defeating, and decadent. Even critics who disagreed that historical periods could be characterized as having a beginning and an end thought that Barzun had written a masterpiece, and Barzun was compared to the great historian Edward Gibbon.

While working on From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun finally left New York and moved to San Antonio, Texas, with his second wife, Marguerite, who was a San Antonio native. Barzun became an active part of the cultural life of his new city, giving lectures and interviews. Through most of his life, he had been in the public eye less than other New York intellectuals, such as his friend and colleague Lionel Trilling. Nevertheless, Barzun had maintained a consistent reputation as an elegant and insightful historian, an independent and clear-headed observer of higher education, and an incisive critic of modern culture.

BibliographyHeilbrun, Carolyn. When Men Were the Only Teachers We Had: My Teachers Barzun, Fadiman, and Trilling. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. A memoir by Professor Heilbrun (also known as the novelist Amanda Cross) of her studies at Columbia University, where the teachers who influenced her most were Jacques Barzun, Clifton Fadiman, and Lionel Trilling.Trilling, Diana. The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993. While primarily concerned with the Trillings, this describes the friendship of Barzun and Trilling and contains views of Barzun as a student and a professor at Columbia.Trilling, Lionel. “A Personal Memoir.” In From Parnassus: Essays in Honor of Jacques Barzun, edited by Dara B. Weiner and William R. Keylor. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Recounts the author’s friendship and intellectual association with Barzun.
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