About Jacques Martin Barzun
Jacques Martin Barzun (born November 30, 1907) is a French-born American historian of ideas and culture. He has written on a wide range of topics, but is perhaps best known as a philosopher of education, his Teacher in America (1945) being a strong influence on post-WWII training of schoolteachers in the United States.
Barzun was born in Créteil, France to Henri-Martin and Anna-Rose Barzun. He spent his childhood in Paris and Grenoble. His father was a member of the Abbaye de Créteil group of artists and writers and also worked in the French Ministry of Labor. His parents' Paris home was frequented by many "modernist" artists of belle epoque France, such as poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Cubist painters Albert Gleizes and Marcel Duchamp, composer Edgard Varèse, and writers Richard Aldington and Stefan Zweig. While on a diplomatic mission to the United States during the First World War, Barzun's father so liked what he saw that he decided that his son should have an American university education. Thus, Barzun was sent to the United States at age 12, first to attend a preparatory school, then Columbia University, where he obtained a broad liberal education.
Barzun was valedictorian of the class of 1927 of Columbia College and was a prize-winning president of the Philolexian Society, a Columbia literary and debate club. He obtained his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1932 and taught history there from 1928 to 1955, becoming the Seth Low Professor of History and a founder of the discipline of cultural history. For years, he, and literary critic Lionel Trilling, ran Columbia's famous Great Books course. He was elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1954. From 1955 to 1968, he served as Dean of the Graduate School, Dean of Faculties, and Provost, while also being an Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge. From 1968 until his 1975 retirement, he was University Professor at Columbia. From 1975 to 1993, he was Literary Adviser to Charles Scribner's Sons.
In 1936, Barzun married Mariana Lowell, a violinist from a prominent Boston family, who died in 1979. They had three children: James, Roger, and Isabel. In 1980, Barzun married Marguerite Lee Davenport. Since 1996, the Barzuns have lived in her home town of San Antonio, Texas. His granddaughter Lucy Barzun Donnelly was a producer of the award-winning HBO film Grey Gardens, and his grandson Matthew Barzun is a businessman and the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden.
Over seven decades, Barzun has written and edited more than forty books touching on an unusually broad range of subjects, including science and medicine, psychiatry from Robert Burton through William James to modern methods, and art, and classical music; he is one of the all-time authorities on Hector Berlioz. Some of his books—particularly Teacher in America and The House of Intellect—enjoyed a substantial lay readership and influenced debate about culture and education far beyond the realm of academic history. Barzun has a strong interest in the tools and mechanics of writing and research. He undertook the task of completing, from a manuscript almost two-thirds of which was in first draft at the author's death, and editing (with the help of six other people), the first edition (published 1966) of Follett's Modern American Usage. Barzun is also the author of books on literary style (Simple and Direct, 1975), on the crafts of editing and publishing (On Writing, Editing, and Publishing, 1971), and on research methods in history and the other humanities (The Modern Researcher, which has seen at least six editions).
Barzun does not disdain popular culture: his varied interests include detective fiction and baseball. He edited and wrote the introduction to the 1961 anthology, The Delights of Detection, which included stories by G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout, and others. In 1971, Barzun co-authored (with Wendell Hertig Taylor), A Catalogue of Crime: Being a Reader's Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, & Related Genres, for which he and his co-author received a Special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America the following year. Barzun is a proponent of the theatre critic and diarist James Agate, whom he compared in stature to Pepys. Barzun edited Agate's last two diaries into a new edition in 1951 and wrote an informative introductory essay, "Agate and His Nine Egos".
Jacques Barzun has continued to write on education and cultural history since retiring from Columbia. At 84 years of age, he began writing his swan song, to which he devoted the better part of the 1990s. The resulting book of more than 800 pages, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, reveals a vast erudition and brilliance undimmed by advanced age. Historians, literary critics, and popular reviewers all lauded From Dawn to Decadence as a sweeping and powerful survey of modern Western history, and it became a New York Times bestseller. The book introduces several novel typographic devices that aid an unusually rich system of cross-referencing and help keep many strands of thought in the book under organized control. Most pages feature a sidebar containing a pithy quotation, usually little known, and often surprising or humorous, from some author or historical figure. In 2007, Barzun commented that "Old age is like learning a new profession. And not one of your own choosing."
Barzun has been made a Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honour. In 2003, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
On March 2, 2011, Barzun was awarded the 2010 National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. On April 16, 2011, he received the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement in absentia.
On October 18, 2007, he received the 59th Great Teacher Award of the Society of Columbia Graduates in absentia.
The American Philosophical Society honors Barzun with its Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History, awarded annually since 1993 to the author of a recent distinguished work of cultural history. He has also received the Gold Medal for Criticism from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he was twice president.