Only a great mind that is overthrown yields tragedy.
-- Jacques Barzun
Jacques Barzun. Born 1907 in Paris, France. He is most commonly recognized as being the author of From Dawn To Decadence, a mammoth work encompassing five centuries of Western cultural life and history written in a very conversational style.
Mr. Barzun's grandfather was a university professor. His father, Henri-Martin Barzun, was a diplomat, author, professor, and modernist. The elder Barzun often collaborated with Albert Gleizes, a relatively well-known artist and one of the founders of the Cubist movement. Mr. Barzun grew up in Paris and Grenoble, where during his younger days, he was in the company of Gleizes and Robert Duchamp-Villon (a Cubist sculptor), as well as musician Edgard Varese (often credited as the founder of electronic music), Richard Aldington and Ezra Pound (two of the first three Imagist poets), and the poet Apollinaire, as well as other famous historical figures during that time period.
His early education occurred at the Lycée Janson de Sailly. He apparently participated in World War I. His father (who was in the Ministry of Labor at the time) came to the United States on a diplomatic mission and wanted Barzun to attend college there. He asked Barzun if he wanted to attend Oxford University or Columbia University, and Barzun, having been quite enchanted with stories by James Fenimore Cooper and books about the American Indians, decided to go to Columbia University. While there, he studied legal matters and history, and eventually leaned towards a specialization in the history of cultures. His dissertation at Columbia was on the subject of the French cultural identity.
Barzun became a University Professor in the late 1930s, and for most of the next four decades he was an example of success in academia. He became Dean of Graduate Faculties in 1955, and in 1959, he also became Dean of Faculties and Provost. Concurrently during these times, he occupied the Seth Low professor of History seat, and became an Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge. During this tenure, he was at the heart of the New York intellectual scene and was associated with a great many people.
He resigned from the administration of Columbia University in 1967 and decided to focus solely on teaching and authoring. During his career, he has authored approximately 30 books on history, art, cultural differences, law, Romanticism, and mystery. Allen Ginsberg was a student of his during his time at Columbia.
He resigned from Columbia in 1975, and, even being of retirement age at the time, he became a consultant to Scribners. In From Dawn To Decadence, a volume that underwent genesis in 1935, he expresses views that place our age as Alexandrian - and in decline. He paints a picture of cultural emptiness, but expresses the opinion that human qualities and ingenuity will save us even as the world begins to view absurdity as the norm.
Some information derived from Roger Gathman's book review in the Austin Chronicle.