Columbia University: Seth Low Professor of History, Dean of Faculties and Provost and later University Professor; Teacher of the Columbia College Great Books Seminar with Lionel Trilling
Presidential Medal of Freedom (George W. Bush)
National Humanities Medal (Barack Obama)
Chevalier of the Legion of Honor
Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
One of the founding fathers of cultural history, the author of over forty books and countless essays, died a few weeks shy of turning 105. It was October 25, 2012, my 65th birthday, and he was my father-in-law. As a public figure, the response was swift, almost unseemly: a web site published the news within 20 minutes. The following morning, The New York Times devoted almost a full page to this ‘man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests.’ Over the following weeks, scholars, former students and friends tried to describe his influence on both them and the world of ideas, but their encomiums fell short, though not for want of trying. The truth is, Mr. Barzun’s sweep was too wide, his knowledge too prodigious, and his powers of recall too formidable. Likely his books, essays, reviews, works edited and translated and many lectures did not cover all of what he knew. The connections he drew between ideas that germinated in one century which resulted in actions in the next were both startling and revelatory. He leapt over tall ideas in a single bound (a cliché he would have edited out at a stroke). The Notes and References section of his Classic, Romantic and Modern attests to his fearless scope; his essay What is a School? framed his thoughts on education; another, Exeunt the Humanities, credibly informs us why we must not let them exit; Is Democracy for Export? is an essay that every foreign policy maker might want to read before deciding on the answer. There are few worthwhile topics that he did not cover, including baseball: ‘Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game.’ Although this opinion is posted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame he hoped it would not turn out to be his most enduring legacy.
I was introduced to Mr. Barzun in 1975 when I met his daughter, Isabel. He and I connected seamlessly. I mention this because I grew up in Durban, South Africa, in a household that had few books and with a father who had no patience for education. That this intellectual and I became friends was attributable solely to his open mind and flexible nature that accommodated all comers. Some have written that he was cold and aloof. I found him warm and thoughtful, on his terms, however. Even after I had married his daughter, provided two granddaughters and spent countless hours in his company, he required that I call him Mr. Barzun. This did not betoken an absence of warmth, but rather his view of our relationship. Respecting his boundaries left ample room for affectionate interaction and few topics were out of bounds. He enjoyed the power and pleasure of good conversation, properly conducted with ample give and take and, ideally, leavened by wit. We once discussed the truism that Sex, Religion and Politics were not suitable topics for drawing room conversation. He countered, with a smile, that ‘these are the only three things worth talking about.’ Subjects he thought did ruin mood and appetite were the 7 D’s – Death, Disease, Divorce, Domestics, Descendants, Diets and Diversions (such as golf). Others he thought could be added to the list were: Destinations (he was tired of airport delay and travel stories); Distributions (the contents and intentions in wills); Doormen (a perpetual favorite for the Manhattan set); Dollars (no personal finances or investment talk); Dining (descriptions of restaurants visited, especially when one was about to enjoy a hostess’ best efforts); Depression, Dreams, Debts and Dogs – I suspect his list continued, but it was characteristic that he would enjoy working within the alphabetic constraint.
He enjoyed weaving threads between people and ideas where the links were not obvious e.g. Darwin, Marx, Wagner. I once heard him talk about G. B. Shaw. He mentioned that Shaw probably had a strong classical education since he drew on a plot from a little known Greek play. Also, while living in London, Shaw must have taken the French newspapers, as he refers to a crime that was reported exclusively in the French press. Barzun valued making connections such as these. He was not impressed by a ‘game show’ talent for the accumulation of facts.
Columbia University gave him his first computer when he turned 80. He asked me for advice on the use of Word Perfect 5.1 (a version of word processing software he saw no reason to improve upon). A few weeks later when he mentioned, over his evening martini, that he had written a few macros it became obvious that my usefulness was rapidly melting away. He systematically explored every byway in every drop down menu and read the entire operating manual until he was familiar with every feature of the software and all twelve function keys. Years later, when it became no longer practical for him to use his DOS based computer he reluctantly upgraded to a Windows machine. Initially he had difficulty associating the movements of the plastic rodent with that of the cursor, but in short order he became skilled. He never forgot the conveniences he had previously enjoyed, however; pinned to the bookshelf, next to his computer today, is a neatly written list of keyboard commands from his DOS days. I should have tried one, it might have activated some Old Testament macro for organizing clerihews, of which he had a huge collection.
When he returned a computer I had lent him some years previously I found that he had left on it half a dozen versions of the introductory pages of From Dawn to Decadence, his cultural history of the last 500 years, each one rewritten in an entirely new way. He was not lazy about what he once described as the hardest labor of all: pushing a pencil across paper.
Still at work in his 90s he complained to a longtime friend, Arthur Krystal, that his memory was going. Ever sensitive, Arthur said “Well let’s see. When was Napoleon born? - ‘August 15, 1769’ Ok, when did Beethoven die? - ‘March 26, 1827’”. Arthur said “I fail to see the problem. Look here, anything you have forgotten no one else ever knew.”
I witnessed little decline in his ability to retrieve information or make connections, right to the very end.
Gavin Parfit lives in New York City with his wife Isabel Barzun.