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A Work in Progress

The great Jacquez Barzun turned 105 yesterday.

By 12.1.11

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Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind
By Michael Murray
(Frederic C. Beil, 302 pages, $26.95)

Jacques Barzun, still going strong at 105, wrote recently of a study of his friend Lionel Trilling that the important thing about a critic was ultimately not the personality but the work. That stance is unfashionable in our personality-driven age: every writer with a book has a blog and an agent, pouring out every unsolicited thought. Buzz too often substitutes for the work.

The focus for Barzun, as for Trilling, was different. Each had, in their own ways, strong personalities -- Barzun cool Gallic intelligence, Trilling perhaps more tentative, seemingly more accessible -- but their work, although a product of their personalities, is separate from them. Through their forty-year collaboration, they sought linkages among objects, ideas, and movements as a way of making sense of politics, literature, and history. This intellectual stance is now called "cultural studies," and has something of a radical air about it, thanks to several decades where it was used as an all-purpose term for a variety of anti-intellectual and political ideologies. Barzun and Trilling were not radicals, at least not in a contemporary sense. Unlike many current practitioners of the genre, they were unafraid to apply judgment, to discriminate among various cultural objects and determine the worth among them, and how they fit together. And they were united that culture and art break ideological boundaries and cannot be restricted to rigid formula. Barzun, therefore, was no New Critic; he understood that cultural objects occur within a culture, and that although they may have lasting value, that value derives in part from its connections with other objects. And it is the job of a critic to explain those connections.

As Michael Murray shows in this, the first full-length biography of Barzun, that capacity to judge has been central in all of Barzun's writing. Murray, a bibliographer and editor of a Barzun reader as well as biographies of Albert Schweitzer and Marcel Dupré, highlights Barzun's "fine discrimination among ideas," evident, for example, in his bestselling From Dawn to Decadence. That book did not display the gloom of many conservative diatribes, nor did it celebrate the fragmentation of Western culture and embrace of the "other," as many liberals fantasized. Rather, Barzun made a nuanced but ultimately compelling case for the contemporary Western culture as a period of decline leading to relative quiescence. However, this need not be a permanent circumstance, but need last only as long as it takes new ideas to germinate. Decadence "implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility."

Barzun was a child of intellectually-engaged parents and was raised in France until 1920, and he was raised among poets, artists, and writers, including Apollinaire. His education in France was the classic lycée tradition, and ever after his work bears the clean prose and logical structure on associates with that tradition. He and his family lived through the harrowing years of World War I, and the images of broken young men -- some of them Barzun's teachers -- coming back from the front was to stay with him lifelong.

He came to Columbia in 1923 as an undergraduate, after some years boarding with an American family for last years of high school. Murray treats these years with characteristic (and sometimes perhaps too-exhaustive) detail, and shows how Barzun's years with the Swope family in Harrisburg helped form him as an American by introducing him to "an insider's knowledge of American middle-class customs." Some years later, Barzun would repay the kindness of his adopted land in God's Country and Mine (1954); more directly, as Murray recounts, Barzun repaid Miss Swope, who secretly helped pay for his college career. Barzun remained at Columbia for five decades, eventually becoming provost. After retiring from Columbia, he spent another two decades as an editor at Scribner's.

The wide scope of From Dawn to Decadence reflects, in some sense, the work of a lifetime; indeed, as Murray discovers, Barzun was taking notes for the book since his graduate school days. And long before that work, Barzun was a household name if not a leader of an academic school; he had appeared on the cover of Time as early as 1956. His previous books stretch across fields and time period, including books on baseball, detective fiction, and more serious studies of race, Darwin, and the scientific mindset, as well as penetrating essays on subjects from baseball to music, of which he was an especially astute critic. Unlike many of the critics of that generation, whose intramural disputes seem dated, Barzun's work speaks still to enduring questions of art, culture, and history.

Murray plumbs unpublished material, such as letters and diary entries, as well as extensive access to Barzun himself, in crafting this life story. But that story is, as Barzun would wish, firmly rooted in the work.

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About the Author

Gerald J. Russello is editor of the University Bookman.