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Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012

Barzun.jpg

“Full of years.” I
am not sure I know of anyone who better qualified for that Biblical epithet
than Jacques Barzun, who died last week at the magnificent age of 104.  Born in France in 1907, Barzun had been a
presence on the American intellectual and academic scene since the 1950s. From
his perch at Columbia University, where he collaborated with the critic Lionel
Trilling on a humanities course than deeply influenced a generation of
students, Barzun (like Trilling) was part of the intellectual conscience of his
age.  He was a public intellectual before
that role had been hollowed out by celebrity and the demotic faddishness of the
1960s. His scholarly work in subjects like French poetry consistently won plaudits.
Writing in 1991 about Barzun’s Essay on French Verse, the poet William Jay
Smith noted that  although “there have
been other treatises on French versification for the English reader,”  “none has been so thorough, so well reasoned,
so free of academic jargon, and so available as this one.”  “It is amazing,” Smith went on, “that
Professor Barzun, now in his eighties, should have produced so youthful and
vigorous a book, an objective study that is at the same time so personal a
document.” That sense of amazement regularly greeted Barzun’s work in the last
decades of his life.  He was the author
of more than 30 books, and his magnum opus, From
Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present
, wasn’t
published until 2000, when Barzun was 93.

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