Jacques Barzun, RIP


You would think that a death so long anticipated wouldn’t have much effect, but it doesn’t work that way.  Jacques Barzun, cultural historian, iacademic, intellectual, and evangelist for Western culture, died today just a month short of his 105th birthday, and it still seems a shame.  He was part of that glorious mid-Century intellectual atmosphere that not only sought to think, but to think publicly and to make its thinking accessible to the public at large.

Many of Barzun’s books are scattered about the house, in various parts of the library.  I’ve read some, and will read the rest.  I worked my way through his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence when it came out, when he was a mere 93.  I nibbled at The Culture We Deserve.  I’ve read most of his essays in A Reader’s Companion, (brilliantly reviewed by Joseph Epstein).

I have a first edition of his 1959 critique of the suicide of American intellectuals, The House of Intellect, along with two reviews of it, one by Harold Rosenberg and the other by Daniel Boorstin, future Librarian of Congress, no pikers they.  When you merit having your books reviewed by them, you know you’ve arrived.

I have an unerring appreciation for books despised by their prolific authors.  From what I can tell, Peter Robinson would just as soon forget Postcards from Hell, about his time at Stanford Business School, and Richard Miniter has never responded to my compliments for The Myth of Market Share.  For some reason, I always figured that Barzun felt the same way about God’s Country and Mine, an appreciation of the culture of mid-Century America as only an immigrant can appreciate it.  (Clifton Fadiman liked it, which may by itself be enough to spark a re-appraisal on my part.)  Latino immigration may have changed this, but for about a century, more of us were descended from Germans that from any other European race, a fact not lost on Barzun, the French American-by-choice:

Our popular culture Germanic? Yes. It is not merely that at Christmas time we all eat Pfeffernusse and sing “Heilige Nacht,” nor that our GIs in the last war found ever country queer except Germany….

One could go on forever; our appalling academic jargon bears a deep and dangerous likeness to its German counterpart; our sentimentality about children and weddings and Christmas trees; our taste in and for music; our love of taking hikes in groupsm singing as we go; our passion for dumplings and starchy messes generally, coupled with our instinct for putting sweet things alongside badly cooked meats and ill-treated vegetables – all that and our chosen forms of cleanliness (every people is clean in different ways about different things) show how far a characteristic culture has spread from the three or four centers where Germans first settled.

Barzun first came to my attention in high school, not for his academic work but for his Modern Researcher, which he continued to update for decades.  He kept it updated for decades, but the brilliance of the book isn’t in the technologies it describes, but in the basic fundamentals of the detective work, and how to keep your notes and mind orderly enough to make sense out of what it is you’re finding.  When you’re done researching, keep Simple and Direct on your desk, open, next to Strunk and White.  There’s a video of him discussing writing a couple of years ago with a small group in San Antonio, where he lived.  Folks, this is a video of a 102-year-old man, and there are days when I don’t feel as lucid as he is in this video.

One of the gifts that Barzun’s long life bestowed on us was an embarrassment of mature work.  Consider that when he wrote God’s Country and Mine, he was 47, one year older than I am now.  This is the book of a mature man, and almost all the work I have from him is later than that.  A huge percentage of what he wrote came with a lifetime or more of experience and seasoning.  When he defended the value of the Western intellectual tradition and culture against the barbarians, he knew what we were in danger of losing.  This wasn’t a political defense; it was born of an understanding that the West said things that had never been said before or since, and to abandon that tradition was in a very real sense criminal neglect of some of mankind’s greatest, most liberating ideas.

He could stand neither Marxism nor the self-loathing of American that it brought to academia.  It’s only justice that as long as the execrable Eric Hobsbawn lived, Barzun, 10 years his senior, outlived him.  Bully.

As I’m writing this, obits are being prepared all over academia, and Arts and Letters Daily will hopefully have a round-up of them tomorrow.  I’ll pick out the best and link to them here.