Jacques Barzun, Historian, Educator and ‘Man of the People’, Is Dead at 104
Jacques Barzun, the distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history and came to see the West as sliding toward decadence, died Thursday night in San Antonio, where he lived. He was 104.
His death was announced by Arthur Krystal, Mr. Barzun’s friend and editor.
Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon.
Mr. Barzun stood beside Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell and Lionel Trilling as among the mid-20th century’s most wide-ranging scholars, all of whom tried to reconcile the achievements of European culture and philosophy with the demands and tastes of American intellectual and cultural life.
He wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book at the age of 92 (and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia). That work, “From Dawn to Decadence,” is an 877-page survey of 500 years of Western culture in which he argued that Western civilization itself had entered a period of decline.
Mr. Barzun was both of the academy and the public square, a man of letters and — he was proud to say — of the people. In books and in the classroom he championed Romantic literature, 19th-century music and the Western literary canon. He helped design the influential “great books” curriculum at Columbia, where he was one of its most admired figures for half a century, serving as provost, dean of faculty and university professor.