Jacques Barzun: Subject of a New Yorker profile

Historians in the News

Writer tells about Barzun’s daily routine at his home in San Antonio, Texas, where he retired after spending more than seventy years in New York, most of them on the faculty of Columbia University. Next month, Barzun will turn one hundred. Among his areas of expertise are French and German literature, music, education, ghost stories, detective fiction, language, and etymology. Barzun chooses to think of himself as an “amateur,” someone who takes genuine pleasure in what he learns about. More than any other historian of the past four generations, Barzun has stood for the seemingly contradictory ideas of scholarly rigor and unaffected enthusiasm. Mentions Barzun’s famous quote about baseball and his fear that he will be remembered only for those fourteen words. Tells about Barzun’s childhood in France. His parents regularly hosted gatherings of avant-garde artists such as Cocteau, Brancusi, Kandinsky, and Duchamp. These salons came to an end with the start of the First World War. After the war, Barzun’s father offered him the choice of completing his studies in England or America. In 1920, the family moved to the United States. Barzun entered Columbia at the age of fifteen. He joined the history faculty a year after graduating. Barzun disapproved of attempts to refashion history as a social science. Tells about Barzun and Lionel Trilling teaching Columbia’s Colloquium on Important Books. Basically, Barzun and Tilling cast themselves in the Arnoldian mold of relating culture to conduct. Trilling and Barzun were less dreamy about the critic’s power, but, like Arnold, they saw no fissure between moral and aesthetic intelligence. In 1941, Barzun became the host and moderator of CBS’s book discussion program “Invitation to Learning.” His reputation was solidified with the publication of “Romanticism and the Modern Ego.” Discusses Barzun’s role in reviving interest in the composer Hector Berlioz. Writer recalls meeting Barzun in 1970, when he was a first-year graduate student. They hit it off and the writer went on to edit a book of Barzun’s essays. Mentions the influence of William James on Barzun. Describes Barzun’s composed and reserved personality and notes that his prose, while not giving off much heat, contains paeans to pure feeling. The charge against Barzun is that he spread himself too thin, but he always wanted to write for a general audience. He wanted to do on the page what he did in the classroom: help the reader “carry in his head something more than the unexamined history of his own life.”
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