Jacques Barzun: the Cheerful Pessimist

With the death of Jacques Barzun passes away a paragon of human intellect and a great friend of America. His oft-quoted line “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” truncates a longer train of thought from his book God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words:

That baseball fitly expresses the powers of the nation’s mind and body is a merit separate from the glory of being the most active, agile, varied, articulate, and brainy of all group games. It is of and for our century. Tennis belongs to the individualistic past–a hero, or at most a pair of friends or lovers, against the world. The idea of baseball is a team, an outfit, a section, a gang, a union, a cell, a commando squad–in short, a twentieth century setup of opposite numbers.

Others have praised Jacques Barzun beyond my poor powers to add or detract. I was just an admirer. Barzun shaped me: his arguments became mine over time.

Barzun hated the notion of Race, favouring that of Culture. He correctly diagnosed the nationalist disease which guided the Fascists and the Communists. He said the Romantics were attempting to create a new world in the wake of Napoleon, dispensing with the generally-held idea of them as dreamers and escapists. Barzun wrote on every imaginable topic: nothing seemed beyond his prodigious intellect.

Auden wrote of the death of Yeats, but it seems especially true of Barzun:

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

Born into a world of Modernist writers and artists in 1907, Barzun was taught to read a watch by Guillaume Apollinaire. Albert Gleizes, the founder of the Cubist movement, would paint Barzun’s mother’s portrait. His great-grandmother, born in 1830, would ply him with chocolate and buns, regaling him with history, planting the seed which would flower so extravagantly for so many years.

Barzun’s father, impressed by American culture sent little Jacques Barzun to Columbia Grammar School at the age of 12. Sadly, there were no Indians galloping through New York City, shooting arrows as little Jacques had hoped. Columbia Grammar was then and now a pipeline to Columbia University. Barzun entered Columbia at the age of 15 and would graduate as valedictorian in 1927, becoming in time a professor, then dean, then provost.

This essay is a bit late for the usual obituaries. It took a while for me to process Barzun’s death. He’s beyond the usual encomiums, they’ve been written by better writers anyway. I’ll just tell you what he meant to me.

Jacques Barzun wrote widely and authoritatively on many subjects. He knew everyone. He was the avatar of Columbia University, an early spokesman for changes we now take for granted in the subject of History. Of course the history of culture ought to be integrated into the wider world of academic History. Barzun helped define that change. In extreme old age, he wrote a bestseller: From Dawn to Decadence. Hundreds of tiny biographies, written in a spare prose style. It’s a constellation, an enormous, complicated firework detonating aloft. But it’s still elegant old Barzun underneath. It’s quite different from anything else he wrote. He was a fine stylist.

Nobody sensible grieves his passing. Jacques Barzun lived a long life, as sharp as ever right up to the very end. We should all live so productively and die so well and be remembered by so many.

I saw in Jacques Barzun a teacher of the wisest sort. He once said a teacher doesn’t really teach a subject: he teaches the student how to learn the subject.

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