Attention, liberal-arts students. Horrified by the high cost of college tuition? Thanks to cultural historian Jacques Barzun, there’s a $36 solution: a copy of his latest and greatest work, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (HarperCollins), an 877-page opus that is a do-it-yourself B.A. in book form. The 92-year-old Barzun has written more than thirty other tomes, but this fact-packed survey of western civilization is his crowning achievement. Nonagenarians are rare, those penning best-sellers even rarer, but what is truly amazing about From Dawn to Decadence is the author’s infectious gusto. He delves happily, wryly, sometimes grouchily into topics ranging from Victor Hugo to hairstyles, from the Mona Lisa to table manners. Hey, Barzun seems to be telling us, history can really be fun. Barzun is arguably the country’s leading intellectual and the smartest guy in Texas. Three years ago the Columbia University professor emeritus—he taught there for 48 years, beginning at age 19—moved from highbrow New York to low-key San Antonio. But Barzun’s life here had really begun much earlier. In 1976 he gave a talk at Trinity University, where he met Marguerite Davenport, a member of the committee that had invited him to speak. Four years later she and the widower wed. Her San Antonio ties made that city the natural choice for their eventual home.
Ever a student of cultures far and wide, Barzun has embraced Texas. “The people,” he says, “are extremely friendly and extremely polite. Perhaps not on the road, but with both feet on the ground, they display a courtesy we don’t expect anymore.” He enjoys San Antonio’s “first-class orchestra,” the McNay and other museums, and Hill Country forays. What does he think of enchiladas and tacos? “I didn’t wait till I moved to San Antonio to discover Mexican food,” he says, with the merest touch of indignation. “I’m very fond of it.”
Barzun worked on From Dawn to Decadence for six years, finishing it up in Texas. The book’s scope is vast; its tone easy; its pages spiced with titillating tidbits (Louis XIV wore that silly wig to hide cysts on his scalp). The author avoids revisionism for revisionism’s sake but calls the reader’s attention to many overlooked figures, such as scrofula-buster Dr. Thomas Beddoes. And, of course, Barzun reexamines the work of various notables—some of whom, including poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Ezra Pound, happened to be friends of his parents in his hometown of L’Abbaye de Creteil, an artists colony near Paris.
Of an earlier European luminary, the essayist Montaigne, Barzun writes that his fellow Frenchman “had a pleasant childhood and a good start in life … [he could have had] the easy life of the lesser nobility, living on his rents and never to be heard of again. But his temper was active, his curiosity intense; he despised idleness and felt his responsibilities.” Those words, one suspects, also apply to Jacques Barzun.