It takes a great man to write a great book, and Jacques Barzun is
certainly a great man in academic and literary circles. The author or editor of some thirty books ranging from studies of music and art to commentary on contemporary science to a readers' guide to detective fiction, Barzun received the Gold Medal for Criticism from the American Academy of Arts and Letters while a member of the faculty of New York's Columbia University.
At the age of 93, Barzun presented the literary world with another
extraordinary gift in his amazingly authoritative work, From Dawn to Decadence. In 877 pages, Barzun masterfully plots the triumphs and tragedies of five hundred years of western history, introducing not only the prominent figures of the past but also those more obscure characters who, in one way or another, impacted the social climate of their time. He divides his work into four parts, each part covering a period of time dominated by a certain issue.
Part One is dedicated to the years 1500 to 1600 and an examination of religion as a determining force on individual and collective actions. Part Two, 1661 to 1789, covers growing concerns on the status of the individual and modes of government, while Part Three -- 1790 to 1920 -- deals with the achievement of social and economic equality. Part Four describes the consequences of the events described in the previous sections.
As Blake (C. 1808) so clearly put it, "To Generalize is to be an Idiot." Recalling Barzun's inclusion of this pithy statement in From Dawn to Decadence (which was a National Book Award finalist), I must say that it is impossible to fully review this work in a few brief lines. Suffice it to say that this book is a treasure to be savored in small doses, read and re-read to achieve full understanding of the author's view of the past and his message regarding the future. For the reader who desires more than the brief summaries of history provided by college texts and documentary videos, this is a masterpiece not to be missed.