One of the past century's great thinkers, a man with something intelligent to say about everything from baseball to Berlioz, Jacques Barzun died Thursday at his home in San Antonio.
He was 104.
Barzun, who at age 93 published his best-selling "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life" and was a finalist for the National Book Award, wrote and edited more than 40 books over seven decades. A graduate of Columbia University, he held various academic and administrative positions at the New York school from 1928 until his retirement in 1975.
A couple of years ago, novelist and Trinity University professor emeritus Robert Flynn checked in with his longtime friend by phone, as he did occasionally, and reported that the renowned educator, then 102 years old, was re-reading the classics and had just finished "War and Peace" - again.
"There are people who haven't read it once," Flynn said. "I have, once, and likely will not read it again."
"Jacques believed in learning," said Flynn, author of the Texas classic "North to Yesterday," "and he learned all his life, usually with at least two books within reach. He always knew more and had better information than anyone around him, even on subjects in which others were supposed to be experts. Jacques learned, led, taught and grew all his life until he outgrew this life."
The cause of death, said Barzun's wife Marguerite, was "old age."
"He was just used up," she said. "He didn't even want to read the newspaper anymore. He told me he wanted to die at home, and I promised I'd take care of him."
"As a writer, thinker and scholar Jacques was a singular example of someone who was conversant and better informed on every subject, historical era, art form and branch of knowledge than any dozen people combined," said former San Antonio Express-News Columnist Cary Clack, another close friend. "He was a wonderful literary stylist, a model of clear and cogent writing. Personally, he was a friend who offered advice on writing and living, who encouraged me and who often let me know that he cared about and was proud of me."
Writer Barbara Stanush recalls mentioning a book to Barzun once - "One of his books, actually, and the next week he sent it to me with a gracious note. He was the most generous, brilliant person. It is inconceivable what was going on in his mind."
Barzun's interests were broad, ranging from science and medicine to education, etymology, literature, art and philosophy - and just about everything in between.
A quick perusal of his titles indicates the flexibility of his mind: "Race: A Study in Superstition," "Of Human Freedom," "Darwin, Marx, Wagner," "Romanticism and the Modern Ego," "The Energies of Art," "Music in American Life," "God's Country and Mine," "The House of Intellect, "Science: The Glorious Entertainment," "The American University" and "A Stroll With William James."
"I first read 'Darwin, Marx, Wagner' and 'Classic, Romantic, and Modern' in high school and have followed Jacques Barzun's work avidly ever since," said Steven G. Kellman, professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of "Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth."
"He was for me the very model of a humanist, an inspiring example of the capaciousness of the human mind. Erudite but not esoteric, Barzun wrote about everything from baseball to Berlioz with authority, clarity, and grace."
Barzun was indeed a great authority on the French composer Hector Berlioz, his 1982 book "Berlioz and the Romantic Century" is considered an essential text on the composer, but perhaps he is best known for saying: "Whoever wants to understand the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."
In May, the San Antonio Symphony honored Barzun with a Berlioz program in a concert sponsored by H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt.
"I have a lot of respect for him," Butt told the Express-News before the concert. "He's probably the best-read person I've ever known. I value his friendship. I wanted to honor him."
Barzun said simply, "I cannot imagine a grander honor."
An educator at Columbia for more than five decades, Barzun pioneered the field of cultural history and oversaw, with literary critic Lionel Trilling, the university's famous Great Books course for many years.
Several of Barzun's books, such as "Teacher in America" and "The House of Intellect," ignited debate far outside the academic community.
And that was because Barzun embraced popular culture and wrote about lofty ideas in a way that most people could understand.
Our Lady of the Lake University Professor Nan Cuba said, "I carry with me his familiar quote: 'Have a point and make it by means of the best word.'"
In a rare public appearance in 2010 at University Presbyterian Church, Barzun said that as a young student he was struck by the notion that social history was "empty and dry and somewhat limited."
"Cultural history is open to everything," he said.
A few years ago, Columbia University provost and history Professor Alan Brinkley told the Express-News that Barzun "was not just a scholar at a university but someone who communicated with a much larger audience."
"He was an example of the way in which a great scholar can also be a great public intellectual," Brinkley said.
Added Kellman: "Long before cultural studies became fashionable and formalized, Barzun was examining history as the work not just of politicians and generals but also of poets, composers and philosophers."
Barzun, who won the Gold Medal for Criticism from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he was twice president, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 and the National Humanities Medal in 2010, was especially proud of a special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for "A Catalogue of Crime: Being a Reader's Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, & Related Genres."
Born in Créteil, near Paris, on Nov. 30, 1907, Barzun grew up in an artistically and intellectually stimulating climate. His father, Henri-Martin Barzun, was a writer and diplomat, and visitors to the Barzun house included artist Marcel Duchamp and composer Edgard Varése.
"I grew up on the makers of the modern arts in Paris, in the cubist decade," he told the Express-News in 1998, shortly after moving to San Antonio from New York with Marguerite, whom he met a decade earlier when the Trinity American Studies professor introduced Barzun for one of his San Antonio university lectures. "As a child I hung out with painters, poets, musicians, politicians and others at my parents' house, and so I early acquired the notion that there is not (just) one single thing going on in the world."
Sent on a diplomatic mission to the United States during WWI, Barzun's father decided an American education would be right for his son, since European universities still would be rebuilding in the wake of the war. He was valedictorian of the class of 1927 of Columbia, as well as president of the Philolexian Society, the literary and debate club.
Barzun would go on to have a long and sometimes controversial career at his beloved university. After retiring, he concentrated on his main love - writing - finishing "Dawn to Decadence" at his Northeast San Antonio home.
"I tended to grow up thinking that writing was the only career," he told the University Presbyterian audience in 2010. "It had naturalness to it that others didn't."
Sitting in a wheelchair in a suit and tie, his white hair brushed to the side, he got a laugh when he called teaching "a dreadful profession."
"It involves taking people's minds and stuffing them with the entire contents of your own," he said.