Barzun was both of thhe academy and the public square, a man of letters and — he was proud to say — of the people. In books and in the classroom he championed Romantic literature, 19th-century music and the Western literary canon. He helped design the influential “great books" curriculum at Columbia, where he was one of its most admired figures for half a century, serving as provost, dean of faculty and university professor.
As an educator Barzun was an important critic of American universities, arguing in 1968 that their curriculums had become an undisciplined “bazaar" of miscellaneous studies.
But he was also a popularizer, believing that the achievements of the arts and scholarship should not be divorced from the wider American culture. Writing for a general audience, he said, was “a responsibility of scholars."
To that end he served as history consultant to Life magazine and as a critic for Harper’s. His articles appeared in Life magazine and The Saturday Evening Post as well as The Atlantic, The Nation and The New Republic. In 1951, he joined Trilling and W.H. Auden in founding the Readers’ Subscription Book Club, which sought to make serious scholarship and literature widely available.
His fascinations extended to mystery fiction, which he surveyed in the anthology “The Delights of Detection" in 1961. Another was baseball, an American institution he considered with a scholar’s eye. In a 1953 essay, “On Baseball," he wrote:
“The wonderful purging of the passions that we all experienced in the fall of ’51, the despair groaned out over the fate of the Dodgers, from whom the league pennant was snatched at the last minute, give us some idea of what Greek tragedy was like."
Unlike many of his colleagues, Barzun showed little interest in taking overtly political positions. This was partly because he became a university administrator and had to stand above the fray, and partly because he approached the world with a detached civility and a sardonic skepticism about intellectual life.
“The intellectuals’ chief cause of anguish," he wrote in “The House of Intellect" (1959), “are one another’s works."
His stature as a public intellectual was undisputed. He was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, established by Napoleon Bonaparte, and awarded the Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, by President George W. Bush. His friendships embraced poets and scholars, and he continued often argumentative correspondence with friends into the 21st century. An authorized biography, “Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind," by Michael Murray, was published in electronic form in 2011.
In 1996, he also made a seemingly unlikely move from New York to San Antonio, where he lived until his death.
“After being boxed in by man and his constructions in Europe and the East, the release into space is exhilarating," he wrote in The New York Times in 1982 about his repeated visits to Texas. “The horizon is a huge remote circle, and no hills intervene."
Jacques Barzun was born on Nov. 30, 1907, in Creteil, a suburb of Paris, the son of Anne-Rose and Henri Martin Barzun. His father was a diplomat and writer with artistic interests. The Barzun home became an avant-garde salon, which Barzun once called “a seedbed of modernism" and “an open house for hotheads." Regular visitors included the writer Jean Cocteau and the painter Albert Gleizes.