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VOL. 22, NO. 22APRIL 25, 1997


Despite His Move to San Antonio, Barzun Keeps Ties to Columbia

Jacques Barzun. Record Photo by Joe Pineiro.

By Fred Knubel

"The people are a good deal more easygoing here," said Jacques Barzun, former Columbia provost and esteemed cultural historian, in a recent phone interview from his new home in San Antonio, Tex. "You don't often meet with the kind of nervous, unintended rebuff you often find with strangers in New York. It is quite dry here and good for the respiratory apparatus. I find it very soothing to my temper."

  Some people said that Barzun would never leave New York. The scholarly resources, the music, the sheer stimulus of the city would hold him here.

  Nonsense, he said: "As far as stimulus is concerned, that comes from other people's minds. San Antonio is a very lively place intellectually and artistically. It is not what a good friend of mine suggested, 'a kind of mining camp at the edge of the frontier.' There are twelve colleges and universities here and I've lectured at several of them. I've kept up with people, and meeting and talking with them is no different from meeting and talking with my friends and colleagues at Columbia, which I also still do."

  Many of those colleagues gave him a spirited send-off at a Faculty Room reception Nov. 26 in which President George Rupp called him "one of the truly great men of Columbia" and historian Kenneth Jackson marveled at the breadth of his interests, saying he wondered "if Texas is big enough for Jacques Barzun."

Barzun on the cover of Time magazine in 1956.

  University Professor and historian Fritz Stern's words were especially eloquent:

  "You've taught me just about everything I know. You've been our inspiration and our model. You've always had sublime scorn for pretentious hokum, especially in academic life. We need that scorn ever more. You've taken strolls with all the great anti-absolutists, and you allowed us to stroll with you. You also wrote once that the historical outlook 'has as its best reward the positive good of reviving the lost faculty of admiration.' I assure you, when thinking of you, it's not lost. You teach by example, by relentless expectation and unobtrusive kindness. You've always fought for that endangered species, the language--correct, precise English."

  That species lives in the more than 30 books Barzun has written or edited over the past 65 years. They cover studies of musical and intellectual history, commentary on contemporary art and science, handbooks for scholars and writers and a reader's guide to detective stories. They include Teacher in America, Music in American Life, The House of Intellect, Science: The Glorious Entertainment, The Use and Abuse of Art, The Modern Researcher, Simple and Direct and A Catalogue of Crime.

  Now, at the age of 89, he is writing a grand summary: From Dawn to Decadence: Our Half Millennium in Cultural Perspective.

  "It's a round-up of all the special studies of cultural history that I've made over the years, covering the period since 1500," he said. "I'm about two-thirds of the way through; I've been at it a good five years now and expect to have it done by the end of this year."

  Barzun has been University Professor emeritus since 1975, and Columbia has been his life-long academic home. He began teaching in 1927, the year he graduated from the College. He earned the Ph.D. in 1932 and was dean of faculties and provost from 1958 to 1967.

  Climate, of course, explains the move to Texas. His wife, Marguerite, is a native of San Antonio, and they've made month-long visits there in recent years. "We thought, for reasons of health, we should make the move," Barzun said. "I don't consider myself an exile at all. I'm still a member of a number of New York City organizations. We'll be going back to New York to visit in the fall, and the third week in July we'll be at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, where I'll give a talk, as I have every year for some time."

  At the farewell reception, Barzun said that the response of his friends to his plan to leave the city had "ranged all the way from astonishment, through dismay to reproof. I have the impression that it is the word 'Texas' that causes this allergic rash in New Yorkers. If we had said 'New Mexico' or 'Arizona,' everyone would have nodded favorably."

  "San Antonio has a good symphony orchestra and a very good chamber music society," he said now on the telephone. "Every day is sunny and bright, with a few white clouds going by. Spring temperatures vary between 50 and 70, which is doubly delightful when I think of the cold in New York."