Jacques Barzun
Jacques Barzun; drawing by David Levine


“All is true.” In the original edition of Le père Goriot, Balzac left this terse epigraph in English. It is the subtitle or alternate title of Henry VIII, an unfinished play uncertainly attributed to Shakespeare. The epigraph acknowledges Balzac’s profound admiration of the Bard. At the same time, it affirms the cumulative and competitive veracity of Balzac’s immense fictional universe. But I believe that these three childishly simple words also imply a dilemma.

Artists and writers constantly confront the teeming plenitude of the natural world that surrounds us on all sides, temporal and spatial. Both the novelist and the historian, if they lower their guard for an instant, can feel overwhelmed, obliterated, not so much by nothingness and emptiness as by the superfluity of existing things and creatures and events. A flood of sensations and of material reality can destroy our hold on life and self. “All is true” can be better interpreted as a cry of desperation than as the purr of serene contemplation. Can we hold our ground in the face of the world’s sheer profusion?

Balzac, like a great gladiator in his long bathrobe, brooding over a coffee urn, created a proliferating anti-universe called The Human Comedy. A less pugnacious mind—say a historian’s—will try to hold on against the profusion of life by finding shapes and patterns in that swarm of events. Stories, both historical and fictional, represent our principal means of staying sane, of weathering the typhoon of consciousness. “All is true” does not so much assent to the undifferentiated existence of everything as recognize the need to simplify, to reduce the world to livable dimensions, to choose out of the plenitude some terrain on which to build our settlement.

It is history that concerns us here, as a source of stories and as an evolving discipline. In an era when the culture is organized to support a great number of scholars producing a wide variety of historical works, what kind of history do we need most? Is the question even pertinent? For we seem to have everything already: a tendentious five-volume history of everybody’s private life from antiquity to the present; a corrective multivolume treatment of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century; a thousand pages of anecdotes to argue that our modern world was born between 1815 and 1830; a jovial volume to recall how the Irish saved civilization from extinction during “the Dark Ages.” The newest history titles freely mix fact and fiction for jaded palates. Enterprising biographers obtain passkeys that open all archives and brush aside all remnants of privacy. Could we possibly wish for anything more from historians?

Despite its freedoms in the past half-century, history has been squeezed from many directions. In our schools, progressive reforms swept up history and geography into a shapeless container called Social Studies tending constantly toward the contemporary. In higher education, history cannot be made to fit into the Procrustean bed of the tripartite division of disciplines into humanities, sciences, and social sciences. A pack of more recent fields—sociology, cultural studies, interdisciplinary studies, women’s studies—trample on traditional history in order to establish their own courses in the undergraduate curriculum. On all levels, from grade school to college programs, the value of the history survey course has been questioned. The textbook containing a lively narrative account of, say, European history or US history has lost ground. Microprobes of local history and seminars on changing gender roles and the survival of racism increasingly crowd out the survey.

In schools, teachers are both inclined and encouraged to teach without a textbook. They believe that photocopied materials allow greater flexibility and circumvent the “cookie-cutter curriculum.” Everyone acknowledges how essential the knowledge of history is to the citizens of a democracy with their responsibility to vote. But considering the shift today toward avoiding any sequential narrative account of history, I wonder just how the coming generations will learn enough history to understand the present and not be overwhelmed by the growing challenge of “All is true.”

The subtitle of Jacques Barzun’s new book, “500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present,” informs us that it honors in some fashion the conventions of the survey. Is it then suitable for adoption as the textbook in the few surviving survey courses in Western history? Not easily, because it presupposes a basic knowledge of political and military history. Barzun has written the summa of a practitioner of cultural history who at the age of ninety-two wishes both to assemble the essential elements of his extensive writings and to surpass them in a final statement.


Son of a spirited avant-garde poet who was a rival of Apollinaire in pre-World War I Paris, Jacques Barzun grew up in a household frequented by artists. They were all hatching new movements in a great burst of productivity on all fronts. Some, including Barzun fils, refer to those pre-war years as the Cubist decade. In 1920, at age thirteen, he came to the United States, attended high school, and moved on to Columbia University. After an AB and a Ph.D., he accepted a position in the history department and published a series of distinguished writings. Today, he could be called the dean of American historians and not simplyon grounds of seniority.


For over sixty years, Barzun has pursued three interlocking careers. As an influential and successful teacher-scholar at Columbia, he worked closely with his contemporary Lionel Trilling to reinvigorate the teaching of the humanities and to establish an important program of required courses in general education. A similar program flourishes today and attracts a large number of qualified undergraduates seeking an integrated set of courses in several disciplines prior to the specialization of a major. The Festschrift volume From Parnassus (1976), which appeared on Barzun’s retirement at sixty-eight, conveys the impression of a lively lecturer and discussion leader who earned the respect of his colleagues and favored undergraduate over graduate teaching.

Endowed with a powerful synthesizing mind and large resources of energy, Barzun undertook a second and parallel career as an administrator. In the office of provost at Columbia, he both attended to the scut work that sustains any institution and wrestled with the postwar surge in graduate education which caused serious financial imbalances. He left the provost’s job not long before Columbia’s crisis in 1968 when students attempted to close down the campus. He also found time, along with Trilling and Auden, to help start up and run the Readers’ Subscription book club.

This administrative work never seemed to slow Barzun down in his third career as a critic and historian whose writings met high standards for scholarship and at the same time reached a large general readership. Most of his books were published by trade houses rather than university presses. Because he avoided political statements and did not engage in the polemics surrounding Partisan Review, Barzun did not fit the description of a public intellectual. But his voice was listened to when he spoke. Two books, which appeared in close succession fifty years ago, made his reputation. Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941) identified these three powerful cult figures as false Romantics who espoused a science of “mechanistic materialism” that separates man from his soul. Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943; an expanded and widely read new edition retitled Classic, Romantic and Modern was published by Anchor in 1961) defends the “cultural renovation” of the Romantic era against its many enemies, from Irving Babbitt on:

[Romanticism] treasured fact and respected the individual as a source of fact. Accordingly, its political philosophy was an attempt to reconcile personal freedom with the inescapable need of collective action. Rousseau, Burke, Kant, Hegel, agreeing on the nature of the problem, differed only in lesser particulars. They were not anarchists or imperialists, but theorists of equilibrium in motion.

After this reaffirmation of a scorned tradition, Barzun capped and illustrated his extended argument on Romanticism with a wide-ranging study on music and history, Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950). There was enough genius and histrionic bluster in Berlioz to make this a popular book. In the Great Conversation of Western culture, I believe that Barzun’s vigorous defense of Romanticism helped to ignite a countermovement: it took the shape of a revival of eighteenth-century thought and the emergence of Enlightenment studies in the 1960s and 1970s.

When Barzun retired from teaching in 1975, some of his most productive years were still ahead of him. But several shifts had taken place in his outlook that influenced the direction of his writing. For one thing, his wonderfully informed discussion of music had attracted him to a field distinct from intellectual history and social history: namely, cultural history, with particular emphasis on the arts. In 1954 the European section of the American Historical Association asked Barzun to address their annual meeting. What he chose to say represents the manifesto of a newly pertinent discipline: “Cultural History as a Synthesis.”*

In his eloquent defense of the close association of the arts with history, Barzun hopes to avoid one lurking professional danger. “Since we cannot believe in a Zeitgeist invisibly at work like Ariel on Prospero’s Isle, I submit that style…is an answer to a common want.” But period styles soon come to sound little different from a refried Zeitgeist. “Style is the solvent in which incompatibles are meant to merge.” In any case, I believe that in this essay on cultural history Barzun took an important step toward his latest book, which falls into that category.

I detect two further points at which Barzun changed course in a way that contributes to From Dawn to Decadence. The fifteen-page epilogue he wrote in 1960 for Classic, Romantic and Modern turns its attention to the contemporary scene. He argues that the “annihilation” of art by Action painters and by poets such as Allen Ginsberg, plus the dilution of art into populism, have brought about a “Carthaginian end” for the arts after their new beginning in the early nineteenth century. “The Romantic purpose, in other words, has come by the severest logic to end what it began, destroying in its last effort all the romantic and classical forms that took their rise in the Renaissance.”


This discouragement with the cultural history that was taking place around him did not fade with the passage of time. The editors of the multivolume Columbia History of the World (1972) commissioned Barzun to write the closing essay, entitled “Toward the Twenty-First Century.” The twelve-page commentary he wrote opens with the cautionary tale of the German scholar Schedel, who in 1493 predicted the close of history rather than the new surge of discovery, commerce, learning, and the nation-state that soon opened one of the great eras of history. Self-forewarned yet undismayed, Barzun cites the loss of faith in ideals and traditions that doomed Greece and Rome, considers the political and civil woes that beset the 1960s, and concludes: “What Western civilization is witnessing, in short, is the last phase of the great emancipation promoted in the eighteenth century.”

This short essay presents in outline form the sequence of events and interpretations that will be filled out to eight hundred pages in From Dawn to Decadence. Consciously or not, Barzun has devoted the last decade to a comprehensive history that begins where Gibbon left off—with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the end of the extended Roman empire in the East. Barzun constructs a readjusted version of Gibbon’s accounting for a decline and fall. The word “emancipation” employed in the above quotation becomes the leitmotif of Barzun’s full-length book. Many of his previously published writings contribute to this final opus. It has grown like a fertile delta at the mouth of a long career.


In his “Author’s Note” for From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun tells us that he strives for objectivity without giving up reactions of sympathy and antipathy. In the loose entity of the West, he sees a “single” as well as a “mongrel” culture. The last paragraph of the prologue declares, “Our distinctive attitude toward history, our habit of arguing from it, turns events into ideas charged with power.” But even though he prints in small capitals a number of recurrent themes, Barzun is not writing a history of ideas. He devotes his attention alternately to events, to ideas, and to people, an amalgam presented primarily through stories. And the people are true agents, great men and great women who have initiated and pursued events and ideas. His treatment of Christine de Pisan, Mme. de Staël, and Florence Nightingale places them in full perspective as historical actors.

Barzun’s basic thesis about the shape of the modern era since 1500 provides the division of the book into four parts following four chronological periods. Part One (1500-1660) deals with the “religious revolution” of the Reformation. Part Two (1660- 1789) concerns the rise of monarchy as an institution and the development of the nation-state. Part Three (1789- 1920) takes up the political and cultural consequences of the French Revolution. And Part Four (1920-the present) includes the aftershocks of World War I, the Soviet experiment, and the decline of the “demotic” culture of the United States.

In the last four pages, Barzun abruptly changes costume from historian to prophet and writes an imaginary “Prologue” dated 2300 “as our own era reaches an end.” Our end is described not as Apocalypse but as Boredom, in which the culture of the past is rediscovered and treasured. “The parallel with the Middle Ages is plain.” I find this short coda distracting. It neither reinforces nor extends the argument of the book; rather it turns aside into obscure mutterings about a new beginning for culture.

What then does Barzun’s net catch for us out of the vast sea of facts to form this volume of cultural history? Let’s look at a chapter in Part Three called “Things Ride Mankind,” which deals with the mid-nineteenth century. Following a chapter mostly on British political thought, this one demonstrates that a period often called “Victorian” and associated with a narrow moralism is far better characterized by varieties of materialism: the Crystal Palace exhibits, realism in the novel and in painting, the shock of evolutionary theory, photography’s summons to pure appearances, and Marx’s dialectical materialism. Into this flea market of topics Barzun introduces enthusiastic semi-asides on his favorite neglected figures of the period, including Walter Bagehot and Oliver Wendell Holmes (père).

In order to hold his vast array of cultural materials together, Barzun relies on a strong sense of periodization, the articulation of chronology into an ordered sequence of periods. The four periods he chooses, which I described above, roughly follow national, military, and political developments. Barzun takes little time to explain that he begins with the Reformation because he believes that the phenomenon we call the Renaissance does not belong primarily to fifteenth-century Italy as the proud humanists proclaimed. “So if any renaissance ever did occur, it was in the 12C, leading to the high medieval civilization of the 13th.” He cites Henry Adams, J.J. Walsh, and J. Huizinga as authorities. This blurring of the Renaissance two centuries backward in time disturbs me less than Barzun’s failure to deal with another major thesis about periodization. The strong formulation of it appears in an appendix Ernst Robert Curtius added to the English-language edition of European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953):

A great English historian, G.M. Trevelyan, is of the opinion that the real break in modern history is not the sixteenth century, but the eighteenth. The Industrial Revolution has meant a much more radical change than the Renaissance or the Reformation. Medieval forms of life subsist until about 1750, to put it roughly. When we consider on the other hand that medieval thought and expression become creative only around 1050, we get a period of about seven hundred years which manifests a unity of structure. We need not bother to find a name for this period. But if we try to consider it as a cultural unit, we may get a better understanding of our past.

The middle of the eighteenth century witnessed not only the beginnings of that great economic change which is termed the Industrial Revolution. It saw also the first powerful revolt against cultural tradition, which is marked by Rousseau.

Barzun missed an opportunity to reformulate the case for 1500 as the break, standing for both the Renaissance and the Reformation, as against the juncture affirmed by Curtius. We now fluently call that juncture the Enlightenment.

As is entirely natural and understandable, the problems of periodization in dealing with the recent past are even more challenging than those reaching back several hundred years. How Barzun divides up the twentieth century forms—as we shall see—an integral part of his thesis about decadence.

What audience will this book reach? It does not advance a single strong revisionist thesis to rearrange our understanding of events. It does not just tell the old story over again with new material added. Barzun takes the old story for granted and emphasizes the contribution of the arts and of intellectual currents. Comparison is difficult. Today, historians feel considerable pressure, intellectual and commercial, to abandon the West and Europe as proper subjects of history in favor of the world, the globe. One of the few good history surveys that remains in print is William McNeill’s A World History (fourth edition, 1999). Its five hundred pages provide the basic knowledge needed to follow Barzun’s cultural history with full comprehension and appreciation. There is always H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History (1920), whose 1,200 pages remain highly readable. (A revised and annotated Outline would make a worthwhile publishing project.)

Barzun mentions Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918-1922), but the book left little mark on his thinking. Paul Johnson’s understanding in The Birth of the Modern (1991) of what makes up the content of cultural history and of the importance of periodization overlaps Barzun’s to a considerable degree. But Johnson chooses to concentrate his 1,100 pages on the interval between 1815 and 1830 in order to bring one period to life in its particulars. Barzun’s book belongs to no ready category.

My hunch is that historians will not pay much attention to From Dawn to Decadence on the assumption that it contains nothing new. History teachers will see it as too long and unsystematic and old-fashioned for adoption in courses. Serious readers of biography and history, who know what to expect from Barzun, will find here a welcome synthesis of his career and of his major methods and views. He has gone to considerable lengths to tell a story with clear transitions, frequent cross-references, and a strong forward movement. The analogy used earlier of netting a catch of fish does justice to the glistening variety of people and events and works he sets before us. Barzun is rarely dull.


I have two substantial criticisms to make of his ambitiously conceived and unevenly executed book. Both refer to the final two hundred pages. The first concerns the shape and meaning Barzun gives to the twentieth century. The second criticism concerns his treatment of the arts in the same period.

Barzun refers to the period between 1885 and 1905 in France both as the Nineties and as the turn of the century. It was an effervescent moment that combined the voluptuous aesthetics of Decadents and Symbolists with the strong reformist and scientific impulse of Naturalism in the novel. “A Summit of Energies” he calls the chapter on the turn of the century. However, the following chapter, “The Cubist Decade,” reveals that we had not yet reached the summit in the earlier period. The years 1905-1914 changed the “negative” energies of the Nineties into “affirmative” accomplishments and became “the fountainhead in every department of culture.” Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes brought new energies from the East. The 1913 Armory Show carried the excitement to the United States.

Here begins Book Four of Barzun’s account. “The Great Illusion” of European alliances, the cult of violence and war, “the Great Switch” from liberalism to the welfare state and communism, and the unspeakable massacres of trench warfare—all these factors and more halted the long forward march of history since 1500. They reveal, Barzun argues, the loss of faith, loss of nerve, and destruction of culture caused by “the Great War.” Parody, the Absurd, popular consumerism, boredom, and irreverence invade all aspects of culture. In the closing pages, Barzun confesses to feeling “some hesitation…about applying the word Decadence to the whole West and the whole era.” Yet he has done so “without tremor.” For Barzun, the great unexplained disaster of the twentieth century, the turning point of modern history to which all other events, cultural included, must be related, is the Great War of 1914-1918.

I believe that the last fifty years have gradually shown us the error of that dark opinion. World War I with all its horror did not interrupt the cultural and political continuities that linked pre-war to postwar in Europe and America. Even the 1917 Soviet takeover in Russia did not immediately appear to threaten the rest of the world. Not until the years between 1929 and 1934 did the great shift occur in a sequence often overlooked. First the stock market crash and the spread of economic hardship throughout the West caused political instability, with Hitler taking power in Germany, anda growing distrust of unbridled capitalism as a functioning economic sys-tem. During that crisis of vulnerability among capitalist democracies, the third Communist International shifted policy drastically in May 1934. Moscow changed from a refusal to associate with the non-Communist left to a great welcoming of all sympathizers into front organizations, peace congresses, and anti-fascist manifestations. “The Hand Outstretched” was the motto circulated in all countries to encourage a popular front. Faced by the partial collapse of capitalism, by the impending threat of the Nazis, and by the naive idealism and powerful propaganda that worked in favor of the Soviet Union, the “Red Decade” of the 1930s was a period of crisis and a turning point for the entire Western world more serious than that of World War I.

Barzun holds onto 1914 as the turning point and thus, I believe, misplaces the periodization of cultural history in the twentieth century. He also remains oblivious to the historic importance of the West’s multiple responses to the crisis of the Thirties. World War II addressed the most immediate danger of Nazi Germany and Japan. It was followed swiftly by the cold war of atomic terror and attrition that lasted forty years and finally ended in the downfall of the totalitarian Soviet regime. And gradually a set of political initiatives and compromises in Europe and the United States have partly tamed the free market and introduced the modified socialist reforms embodied in the welfare state.

Can one come to a balanced judgment about the “decadence” of the West in the twentieth century without considering World War II, the cold war, and the efforts of democracy and capitalism to meet the challenges that emerged in the Thirties? These were cultural events as well as military and political events. The leadership of Churchill, Roosevelt, De Gaulle, and Marshall, and, yes, in a different style, of Thatcher and Reagan is part of a saga that does not deserve the word “decadence.” Other horrors have occurred and continue to occur. But Barzun’s treatment of twentieth-century history leaves the impression that nothing positive, nothing heroic, no major effort to defend civilization has occurred since the Great War abruptly cut off the creative energies of the Cubist decade. For the overall thesis of this book about the trajectory of a five-hundred-year era, and about the last century in particular, I find this omission disabling.

Barzun chose part of a chapter from Part Four—entitled “The Artist Prophet and Jester”—to publish in advance of the book in The American Scholar (Winter 2000). Here Barzun accepts the term “Modernism” to designate the most significant directions in the arts “from the time of this final victory won by the religion of art in the early 1920s.” No two critics ever seem to agree about the dating of Modernism, and the plausible analogy of modern art to a religious movement has appeared several times in earlier chapters without adequate discussion and evidence. Barzun traces Modernism through the standard reference points of Eliot, Joyce, and Proust, and omits mention of the crisis of abstract art that goes back to the Cubist decade. These choppy pages discuss the Dada and Surrealist movements and overlook their close continuity with pre-war escapades by Jarry, Apollinaire, and Duchamp. And both movements put up a sturdy resistance—for as long as they could hold out against the culture—to the very category of art as a description of what they were doing. They called art “an alibi” and “a lamentable expedient.” For Barzun, Modernism has become “at once the mirror of dis-integration and an incitement to extending it.” After this inept chapter, Barzun descends, or rises, increasingly into the tones of a jeremiad directed against contemporary culture as a whole. The book ends with the West irretrievably on the skids, its institutions in decline, lacking leadership and self-understanding. It is a very limited view of our time.

Barzun or his copy editor should have repaired a number of solecisms that mar his generally workmanlike prose. For example: “Gluck had declined composing Beaumarchais’ text.” “She also practiced the right to be as sexually free and initiative as men.” “The next instant, emotions varied—appall for some, joy for others.” “…She found later in life a congenial husband, though his latter days darkened hers by becoming ill, alcoholic, and of uncharacteristic bad temper.” Painting sometimes lures Barzun beyond his depth. “Perspective is based on the fact that we have two eyes.” He’s thinking of depth perception, not perspective. When he refers later to an exhibition in 1874 of paintings by Manet and others rejected by the annual Salon, he is confusing the Salon des Refusés with the first show of the Société Anonyme (or Impressionists).

Barzun entitles a chapter in Part One “The Eutopians” to suggest that More, Campanella, Bacon, Rabelais, and others were writing not about “no place,” but about “a good place.” Eutopias contributed much to social thought. Then he writes as follows:

Eutopian morals show how mistaken are modern critics who keep complaining that science has made great progress in improving material life but has lagged in doing the same for the ethical. There was no progress to make. Men have known the principles of justice, decency, tolerance, magnanimity from an early date. Acting on them is another matter—nor does it seem easier for us to act on our best scientific conclusions when we deal with bodily matters: an age that has made war on smoking and given up the use of the common towel and the common cup should prohibit shaking hands.

Is this a major pronouncement by a cultural historian? If so, he never investigates the “early date” to which we can trace the origin of our moral principles. And the entire design of From Dawn to Decadence suggests a movement of progress and regress unlike that of science and characteristic of culture—including justice, decency, and the like. Is there “no progress to make” in ethics in order to deal with nuclear weapons and genetics? Barzun can hardly mean it. He is the first to acknowledge cul-tural and ethical accomplishments. A few pages later in the same chapter, Barzun makes much of Shakespeare’s “invention of ‘character”‘ out of mere types. The sympathy with which Barzun presents the sensibilities and intelligences of Pascal, Hazlitt, and William James recognizes a gradual growth of consciousness, a changing perception both of interior life and of the lives of others. Everything Barzun writes declares that we are still engaged in winning (or losing) our way toward moral principles, whose gradual discovery is in part the creation of that very search. The exploration of the major category of the disinterested in ethics, aesthetics, and science belongs to the era surveyed by this book. Barzun does not mention it. The pirouette at the end of the above paragraph about smoking and handshaking trivializes the significant question raised by the opening sentences of the paragraph and reveals Barzun at his most captious.


Particularly for the reader who is exploring both the highways and the byways of history, From Dawn to Decadence overflows with rewards. It fills its eight hundred pages the way a natural history museum seems always to need more space for its specimens. Barzun has a restless magpie mind that revels in details. He gives us fine portraits of Luther, Emperor Charles V, Cromwell, Diderot, and others. Despite the antibourgeois pronouncements and gestures that emanate from his favorite nineteenth-century figures, Barzun knows and states the importance of a strong middle class to give stability to a vital culture. And he does not hesitate to give free rein to his love of language. An incorrigible philologist, he conjures up revelations from words we use every day. Why do judges sit in “chambers”? How have we all come to have a surname or last name, whereas for centuries one given name was enough for ordinary people? What does “encyclopedia” say about the shape of knowledge? Why is “experimental” an inappropriate term to apply to a work of art? Barzun seeks out such questions and they lead to some of his juiciest asides.

Near the end of Part Three, Barzun decides to write a five-page excursus on the state of history as written today:

When Lord Acton, dean of the profession and editor of the Cambridge Modern History, told his juniors: “Take up a problem not a period,” he was directing them to a social situation in place of a series of events. In France, a group headed by Lucien Febvre had a similar idea: no more events but “collective mentalities.”

Pressed by such tendencies, “narrative gives way to description” and “the historian turns into a sociologist.” Barzun refuses to be browbeaten and brandishes his sarcasm:

Now individuals were deemed unimportant. Neither great men nor medium-size ones had influence; only the crowd had power, and what it affected was not events, which matter little, but the broad conditions of life. This motionless history defied a tradition of 2,500 years.

Well, history too must change—if not progress. Barzun’s own history in From Dawn to Decadence relies as much on “social situations” as on narrated events. I believe that his book could have been shorter and stronger if he had stopped his account of culture with the enthusiastic chapter on the Cubist decade without trying to find the underlying shape of the twentieth century. That way, we would read many illuminating views of culture and fewer philippics. Barzun’s sense of an ending does not make good history.

This Issue

June 29, 2000