Friday, March 30, 2007

A Sobering Thought

I once had occasion to tell a group of graduate students that any of them would be lucky to achieve the fifth or sixth rank among historians. The remark was prompted by their dissatisfaction with all they knew: Gibbon was a bore, Macaulay a stuffed shirt, Hegel and Michelet were fools, Carlyle and Buckle frauds — this from students who could not write ten pages of readable and properly documented narrative. Pointing out that even second- and third-rate men, such as Milman, Bancroft, or Grote, were the superiors of these students’ own instructors, who were by definition superior to the students themselves, was a sobering thought quite foreign to their experience.

— Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect


Talking indyk

From the blog U Krakovianki:

Miscellaneous cool trivia: I love learning the origin of words, including Polish words. It was unusual, however, to discover the origin of a Polish word while reading From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. He writes:

The bird misnamed turkey (in French d’inde = from India and for a while in Britain Indian fowl) also made its appearance, these names being another indication of the long ignorance about America.

And the Polish word for turkey, probably derived from French, is indyk. Who knew? You never know what you might learn from Jacques Barzun.


Monday, March 26, 2007

“Our enemy, Islam”

Iannone: You have written an essay, “Is Democratic Theory for Export?” We are in the midst of an effort to do just that in the Mideast. Do you have any thoughts on the American mission in Iraq? What is your general take on the exportability of democracy? Do you think Islam is compatible with democratic values? (Here is where the followers of Strauss have evidently been especially influential—in the idea that our values are universal and therefore portable to the rest of mankind.)

Barzun: The Middle East situation also ought to be studied and judged on two levels. As a field of action to establish democracies, its resistance manifestly cannot be overcome. All effort to that end is wasted, because the United States cannot muster a force greater than the opposing forces, irresistible when joined, of history and religion — and would not if it could. But as a means of keeping at a distance the struggle with our enemy, Islam, our interference in that region may be justified. The huge immigration from the east into the west makes it plausible that if this enemy assaulted us at home, it would trigger not a united defense, but a quasi-civil war.

— Carol Iannone, “A Conversation with Jacques Barzun,” Academic Questions, Volume 19, Number 4 / Fall 2006, Pages 19 - 27

I submit that Jacques Barzun is an example of someone who cares about the fate of Western civilization, and Dinesh D'Souza an example of someone who cares mainly for the fate of . . . Dinesh D’Souza.

— Hugh Fitzgerald, Re: D’Souza


Sunday, March 25, 2007

New English Review

in the person of Hugh Fitzgerald calls Jacques Barzun its intellectual co-sponsor in a blog post that drew this comment:

26 Mar 2007

An insight typical of the noble Barzun, a cultural treasure in a very dark time. Eliot, Lewis (THE ABOLITION OF MAN), and Russell Kirk wrote about decadence along the same lines and the London Social Affairs Unit has recently published a volume of essays on the same theme, DECADENCE: THE PASSING OF PERSONAL VIRTUE AND ITS REPLACEMENT BY POLITICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL SLOGANS, ed. Digby Anderson (London: Social Affairs Unit, 2005: ). One of the most moving of Barzun's many virtues is that he is a patriot, both for the USA and the idea of the West, without being exclusive or chauvinistic: he knows that the struggle is for a civilization, which entails a universal dimension. God bless him.

Dr. M.D. Aeschliman

See also an excerpt from M. D. Aeschliman’s review of Hugh Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life (National Review, April 2, 2007) in Video meliora, proboque; Deteriora sequor

Saturday, March 24, 2007

JB with Charlie Rose

So far as I know Jacques Barzun has not yet appeared on YouTube. Here, via Google Video, he is discusses From Dawn to Decadence with Charlie Rose on May 29, 2000.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Bruce Mazlish

One of my prime concerns has been the evolution of the human species. And how we go about looking at this—the question of what lenses we use to look at the past—has run through all my work. One of the lenses is psychological. Historians deal with human motivation. How can you not try to use the most insightful tools of psychology to get at this? I should say, parenthetically, that my mentor, Jacques Barzun, disagreed with me on this. At any rate, my doctoral thesis was on the history of conservatism, a foolish undertaking. It was much too large a topic, but eventually I got the thesis down to under 500 pages. In doing that study, I became acquainted with the work of Karl Mannheim, and I also incorporated some of his thinking on the sociology of knowledge into my thesis. Barzun grilled me on this and said, “Now, Bruce, you just can’t have this stuff in there. Look how badly it is written.” I replied, “It’s my translation, but it’s pretty bad in the original, too. But he has so much worthwhile to say.” To which he responded, “But he is a sociologist.” At that point I became very aware of how disciplines can get in the way, rather than helping inquiry.
From Psychohistory to New Global History: A Conversation with Bruce Mazlish, Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society, Volume V, Number 6 (July/August 2004)

In the same issue:

The history of things, to guess at its future, will not consolidate itself into a formal school or an established curriculum. Its sources and motives are too diverse; its subjects and methodologies are too numerous, if not eccentric. Its embrace of novelty, no doubt, invites those who cherish cleverness and book sales over scholarship. Nevertheless, at the same time, it will provide fresh topics and approaches. It will give a deserved place to the history of science, technology, engineering, design, and the landscape, which is fitting in this era of moral and social subjects. It will also leaven economic, business, family, local, and regional history. Negating abstract ideologies and uniform and governing explanations, it will stimulate our imaginations, enhance the flexibility of our causalities, and meet Jacques Barzun’s prescription for good history by joining “Narrative, Chronology, Concreteness, and Memorability.” Finally, with its accent on details, precise connections, and contextual accuracy, the history of things will leave us, as any good narrative should, trembling before the power of the common and ordinary, the small and invisible, to write human destinies.
— Joseph A. Amato, Little Things Mean A Lot : The History of Things, or Histories of Everything

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Robert Lipsyte as a nerdy son of Trilling and Barzun

I went to Columbia in the 1950s, a school with a determinedly dowdy sports tradition that made us proud. One of my classmates, 5-foot 7-inch Chet Forte, was not only a consensus all-American, but as a senior was voted college player of the year, beating out the 7-foot Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas (#1 East this year). But the best part for us nerdy sons of Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun had come a year earlier when Chet the Jet was suspended from the team toward the end of the season for academic shortcomings. It probably cost Columbia the Ivy title. But our school's priorities were clear. Then.
— Robert Lipsyte, Descent into March Madness (alternative link).

— Barzun 100 —

And I noticed these in the March/April 2007 issue of Columbia College Today:

The Gift of Learning

Next month I will be 81, and soon I will celebrate the 60th anniversary of my graduation from Columbia College. What does an 81-year-old do often? He remembers or reminisces. I can still see the young faces of Lionel Trilling [’25 ], Meyer Schapiro [’24], Jacques Barzun [’27] and Theodosius Dob­z­hansky. But what I remember most is the immersion into a world of high culture, which deepened and enriched my life.

How else could I say with assurance that the three most profound expressions of the human condition are Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s opus. Not to omit Goethe, Cervantes and so forth. I have read hundreds of marvelous books since graduation, books of science, history, philosophy and art, but my capacity to read and properly evaluate them was established at Columbia. Even my abiding love of music (especially opera and chamber music) was deepened at Columbia.

My experience at Columbia College gifted me with the capacity to live deeply and intensely — a life is not measured quantitatively. And so my memory constantly drifts back to that 16-year-old awestruck freshman ready and willing to absorb the gift of learning that Columbia was ready to bestow upon him.

Anson K. Kessler ’47
Hendersonville, N.C.

By its very nature, athletics provides a lasting tie. There are the values of teamwork, the commitment to a common goal and to making the sacrifices necessary to achieve, or compete for, that goal. Another tie is the College’s academic excellence. I love when alumni of a certain age share their recollections of Columbia icons such as Moses Hadas, Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling ’25, Jacques Barzun ’27 and so many more. This is not unique to older alumni. Columbia’s outstanding faculty, then and now, has provided memorable experiences — in many cases, life-altering experiences — for many of us.
— Alex Sachare, Ties That Bind

“I began to realize while I was there that Columbia was really going through a golden age. My freshman history was with Stephen Marcus. I studied with Trilling, Bentley, Barzun, Van Doren . . . I had an incredible education at Columbia.”
— Terrence McNally, quoted in Laura Butchy, Terrence McNally ’60 Prepares for Another Broadway Opening


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Francis M. Nevins

From MIKE NEVINS on Christianna Brand, EQMM, and Jacques Barzun, Mystery*File, 20 March 2007:

In most centenary celebrations the subject is dead, but there’s one coming up in just a few months where the honoree is still with us – and, so I’m told, doing well for a 99-year-old. He claims to have written a number of short whodunits published under a pseudonym in his student years but his real significance for us lies in his extensive writing about the genre over several decades and in his connection with the supreme master of pure suspense fiction.

I am referring of course to Jacques Barzun, distinguished professor at Columbia University, co-author of the massive Catalogue of Crime, and, in the early 1920s, Columbia classmate of Cornell Woolrich, who quit college in third year when his first novel sold.

My first contact with Dr. Barzun was back in the late Sixties when I arranged to include one of his essays in my anthology The Mystery Writer’s Art (1970). In April 1970, while I was working on Nightwebs (1971), my first collection of Woolrich stories, he invited me to his Columbia office and we spent most of an afternoon talking about what the university was like almost half a century earlier when he and Woolrich were undergraduates together and sat next to each other for several courses.

We corresponded off and on for several years. After translating from the French (a language I had never studied) an essay about Georges Simenon’s pre-Maigret crime novels, I presumed on my acquaintanceship with Barzun and asked him to look over my draft before I sent it in to The Armchair Detective. He made many small corrections, one of which I still vividly remember: I had rendered a line from an early Simenon as “Marc’s bottle was empty” which he changed to “The bottle of marc was empty,” pointing out to me that marc is a cheap French brandy. But on the whole he was hugely pleased with my translation, saying that he was “truly amazed” that I had done it without ever having taken a French course and that it was “certainly better than much advanced student work in a Romance Language Department.”

In the early Eighties I became involved with Nacht Ohne Morgen (Night Without Morning), a documentary on Woolrich for German TV, and arranged for the director, Christian Bauer, to interview Barzun. They talked for almost an hour but only about a minute of footage found its way into the finished film. I obtained an audiotape of the entire interview and quoted from it extensively in my own Woolrich book First You Dream, Then You Die (1988). If Jacques Barzun had not been still alive and well and blessed with a vivid memory, we would know so much less about a key period in Woolrich’s life. For that gift to the genre and for countless others, merci beaucoup. May his hundredth birthday be a joyous one and not his last.

See also Francis M. Nevins and Francis M. (Mike) Nevins.

This post is now also in Jacques Barzun Centennial. Click on Francis M. Nevins.

Their Space

vade mecum

. . . individuality is not illusory . . . the ultimate arbiter of truth is experience.
— Jacques Barzun, “Quentin Anderson Redux”, in Donadio, Railton, and Seavy, Emerson and His Legacy: Essays in Honor of Quentin Anderson (Carbondale, Southern Illinois UP, 1986)


Sunday, March 18, 2007

No Grand Old Men in the House of Intellect

To admire is an expression of freedom that is denied by envious equality, and admiration depends on fame. But the apparatus of public opinion, responding exclusively to what it considers news, can no longer sustain fame. What it gives instead is publicity. Newcomers and others receive notice, according to formula, as news merely, and sometimes in such an overdose that it destroys the beneficiary. He is driven from his emotional base or from his proper work and ends as a burnt-out talent or a suicide. If he survives as a talent, he still has to forego the attribute of wonder, or fame. The result is that the House of Intellect numbers few great figures and virtually no grand old men. Past achievments do not secure anyone a place, and this not because of the multitude of new achievements, but because to consider a reputation established would be to confer status, privilege. A master in his old age must therefore continue to ‘be news’ or go without public attention. Picasso by poltical murals, Frank Lloyd Wright by lectures on public affairs, can hold their places in the public mind. But Mencken, who was retired and stricken, received on his last birthday exactly thirty messages of congratulation. Comes the obituary — the ultimate news — and the account is closed. Next!

— Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect, 1959, 43–44

See also A Further Fall of the House of Intellect?

“A full heart in an empty world”

. . . . Jacques Barzun’s description of Romanticism as “a full heart in an empty world." — Richard Nilsen. “[Emmanuel] Ax excels with passionate abandon”, Arizona Republican, March 18, 2007

Not Barzun’s, and not a description of Romanticism:

In his chapter [in Le Génie du Christianisme] on “le vague des passions” (intimations of passion) Chateaubriand defines his subject as “a state of the soul which . . . has not yet been adequately studied, namely, that which precedes the development of our passions when our faculties are young, active, and whole, but closed in and exercised only on themselves, without aim or object. . . . One is knowing without experience . . . One’s imagination is rich, abundant, full of wonders; life is dry and disenchanted; one lives with a full heart in an empty world.”
— Jacques Barzun, Berlioz and the Romantic Century, 1969 (1950), 162–163.


Friday, March 16, 2007

On David McCullough

Iannone: Do you agree that popular history, the work of David McCullough, for example, now supplies some of that narrative or story that readers crave and that academic historians have abandoned? Is there any downside to this?

Barzun: I greatly admire David McCullough’s work both in biography and in history and I do not consider him “popular” because his latest books have turned out to be widely read. That has been the public’s good sense and good luck. History writing, we must not forget, is for the educated part of the population, not just for fellow historians to haggle over. Macaulay hoped that his great work would find a place on the young lady’s dressing table, presumably to be read, not to show off.

— Carol Iannone, “A Conversation with Jacques Barzun,” Academic Questions, Volume 19, Number 4 / Fall 2006, Pages 19 - 27


Thursday, March 15, 2007

President Barzun?

In the fall of 1945, a University Council-appointed faculty advisory committee chaired by Dean Pegram brought forward four faculty names for presidential consideration. Included among them were two historians, John A. Krout and Jacques Barzun, a professor of government and public law and later a member of the World Court in the Hague, Philip C. Jessup, and the economist and dean of the Business School Robert D. Calkins. Krout later served in several administrative capacities, including dean of Graduate Faculties (1949–52) and provost (1953–56). In 1948 President Truman appointed Jessup the United States representative to the United Nations. Calkins went to the Rockefellers’ General Education Board in 1947 and five years later became president of the Brookings Institution. Thus all three had estimable public careers after being passed over for the Columbia presidency.

But it is the thought of Jacques Barzun becoming Columbia’s thirteenth president in 1946 that makes the most intriguing might-have-been. In terms of his administrative interests, he was a protégé of Harry Carman and closely identified with the College, from which he graduated in 1927 at the age of nineteen. He passed the war mostly at Columbia, teaching a course in naval history. At thirty-eight, he was only two years younger than Low and one younger than Butler when they assumed their Columbia presidencies. He was both more naturally elegant and less intellectually circumspect than either. He was a superb teacher and an excellent scholar and had administrative experience. He wrote beautifully on a wide range of subjects but on none so wittily as on higher education, as in Teacher in America, which appeared in 1945 and marked his national debut as the acerbic commentator on academic folkways that he has continued to be into the twenty-first century.

“Jacques,” admirers said of him, “does not lack self-confidence.” For this reason, he might have given his trustees as much trouble as President Barnard had his, but with less shouting and more verbal playfulness. Of twentieth-century university presidents who might serve as functional equivalents of this president-not-to-be, there really are none, though the stormy tenures of Chicago’s Robert Hutchins and Boston University’s John Silber are at least suggestive.

But even had a faculty consensus developed around Barzun, it was unlikely that the trustees would have joined it. Theirs was a board historically predisposed against choosing its presidents from among the faculty.

— Robert A. McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, Columbia UP, 2003, pp. 333–334.


History the opposite of reductionism

See Keith Burgess-Jackson, Jacques Barzun on Marxist History.

See also Religion on One’s Sleeve.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Tyranny of Testing in Texas

Friday, March 09, 2007

John Lukacs

Of John Lukacs’s book Democracy and Populism, Jacques Barzun wrote:

In taking up Tocqueville’s theme, Democracy in America, our most perceptive and far-ranging historian corrects many misconceptions about the recent past and deals commandingly with this country’s zeal to implant our blend of freedoms abroad. He will arouse thought as he always does and stir the emotions more than usual.

Of the collection, Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowlege, Mr. Barzun wrote:

It was about time that a John Lukacs Reader should be brought out, to show the public the range and depth of this great living historian’s contribution to knowledge, his importance as a thinker, and attractiveness as a narrator of events. The editors’ generous selection of types of work and subjects warrants changing Reader to Treasury.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Today in Letters

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Jacques Barzun was president of the Philolexian Society 80 years ago.

See Message from Jacques Barzun (CC 1927) to the Philolexian Bicentennial in 2002.

The Philolexian Society will read excerpts from Jacques Barzun’s works at the Jacques Barzun Centennial Celebration.

See also The Phlog and The Philolexian Foundation.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Rhoda Nathan and Diane Ravitch

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Is Democratic Theory for Export?

Keith Burgess-Jackson has posted a link to Jacques Barzun, Is Democratic Theory for Export? (1.5MB pdf file), the 6th annual Morgenthau Lecture, given at the Carnegie Council in 1986.

Here is an abstract from the Carnegie Council website:

A prominent feature of American political consciousness is a desire to propagate democracy throughout the world. In our enthusiasm to share what we enjoy, Jacques Barzun sees that little attention is paid to exactly what we are trying to distribute. Through a brief historical survey of democracy, he shows that our popular conception of the term does not correspond with any particular definition. U.S. democracy has no central text and is distinctly different, in theory and in practice, from the democracy of other states, both historical and contemporary. Democracy is an abstract ideal that is a function of time. Its present incarnation in the United States emphasizes freedom and equality through the means and language of specific personal rights. Barzun sees an internal tension in this formulation, one that ultimately threatens both freedom and equality if exported to the rest of the world.

Buy a print copy.

Opening my copy after many years, I see a note:

Jan 13/87

Dear Leo

I love your pun on pedagogy — true inspiration. Have a good New Year — I began mine with the flu, but: I’m going on half time consulting & at home — 1170 Fifth Ave, N.Y. 10029 — which should be a great relief.

Best —

Rereading it, I see that Mr. Barzun’s lecture quoted a member of the Barzun Centennial Celebration Steering Committee:

In France, the last elections brought to power in the National Assembly, and hence in the office of the prime minister, a party opposed to that of the president, whose term was to continue for another two years. This vote caused immediate and prolonged consternation. Would there be a violent clash or would government stop dead in a stalemate between the president and his prime minsiter backed by the Assembly? A few daring souls said that “cohabitation” (which in French has no sexual overtones) might be possible. But debate raged on. It so happened that a young musicologist from Smith College was in Paris when the dismay was as its height. Being fluent in French, he wrote a letter to Le Monde, which published it as remarkable. It said in effect: “Good people, don’t be upset. What bothers you has happened in the United States quite often. Democracy won’t come to an end because two branches of government are in the hands of different parties.” (Peter Anthony Bloom, “La Leçon des Etats-Unis,” Le Monde, Paris, February 28, 1986).

And as for present concerns,

In the democratic theorem, the sovereignty of the people implies the practical unity of that people. How to create it when it does not exist is a different task from that of developing free institutions and is probably incompatible with it.

See also Fashioning Democracy and Start Something Up.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Douglas Yeo

Jacques Barzun titled his landmark book on the last 500 years of human history, From Dawn to Decadence. His words are wise and his title not merely provocative. The 21st is not the greatest of centuries just because we live in it and everything seems to be at our fingertips.
— Douglas Yeo, What Happened to the Internet?

In recent years I have come to appreciate Berlioz in a new way. At one time I was no great fan of his music — after all he only wrote for a bass trombone in one piece (his Funeral and Triumphant Symphony) and it seemed he wrote endless unisons for the trombone section. After studying him more, I've come to appreciate his remarkable compositional gift and how he understood the orchestra like no composer before and since.
Interview with Douglas Yeo


Pleasures of Music

Part of the jacket of the original (1951) edition of this anthology.

MUSIC. Makes a people’s disposition more gentle; e.g., “The Marseillaise.”
— Flaubert


Down Under

An Australian blogger has published the 1983 preface to Teacher in America:

Barzun on the decline of education from 1945 to 1980

Thursday, March 01, 2007

On the same page

Since this article by Ed Feulner quoting Jacques Barzun is being published in various places, a link to On Making American English the Official Language of the United States is appropriate.