French-born author traced collapse of traditions in modern times
By The Associated Press
Published: Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, 5:50 p.m.
Jacques Barzun, a pioneering cultural historian, reigning public intellectual and longtime Ivy League professor who became a best-selling author in his 90s with the acclaimed “From Dawn to Decadence,” has died. He was 104.
Barzun, who taught for nearly 50 years at Columbia University, passed away Thursday evening in San Antonio, where he had lived in recent years, his son-in-law Gavin Parfit said.
Praised by Cynthia Ozick as among “the last of the thoroughgoing generalists,” the tall, courtly Barzun wrote dozens of books and essays on everything from philosophy and music to baseball and detective novels.
In 2000, he capped his career with “From Dawn to Decadence,” a survey of Western civilization from the Renaissance to the end of the 20th century. The length topped 800 pages, and the theme was uninspiring — the collapse of traditions in modern times — yet it received wide acclaim from reviewers, stayed on best-seller lists for months and was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize.
Even the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards said he was reading it.
“The whole thing is a surprise, because scholarship is not exactly the thing people run after these days, or perhaps at any time,” Barzun told The Associated Press in 2000.
Along with Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald and others, the French immigrant was a prominent thinker during the Cold War era, making television appearances and appearing in 1956 on the cover of Time magazine, which cited him as representing “a growing host of men of ideas who not only have the respect of the nation, but who return the compliment.”
In 2003, President Bush awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, praising Barzun as “a thinker of great discernment and integrity. ... Few academics of the last century have equaled his output and his influence.” In 2010, he received a National Humanities Medal.
Barzun had first-hand knowledge of much of the 20th century and second-hand knowledge of a good part of the 19th century. His great-grandmother would give him chocolate and tell him stories, an experience that helped inspire him to become a historian.
A scholar's son, Barzun was born in Creteil, France, in 1907 and grew up in a household where Modernism was the great subject and visitors included Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound and Guillame Apollinaire.
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