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Things I’ve Learned About Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. – Or, Thursday Fun With Arthur

March 15, 2007

After numerous reflections and articles – here, here, here, here, and here – I’ve learned a great deal about Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. since his February 28 death. An HNN symposium, moreover, covered a New York Times article by Sam Tanenhaus dealing public engagement by historians, especially as represented by Schlesinger. With all this coverage I’m almost – but not quite – “Schlesingered Out.”

But because I’m not quite through thinking about the man, what follows are some interesting facts and opinions from the above-noted five pieces. The added bonus here is that these facts are accompanied by my sometimes humorous (and otherwise) commentary. I’ve also hyper-linked the text below to the max. I’ve been fascinated from afar about Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. for a long time, so this might get pedantic. Consider this post both a kind of homage and a summing up. I ordered the excerpts and my reflections chronologically.


– “The son of the prominent historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger, he was born Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 15, 1917. Schlesinger so admired his father that, in his early teens, he took it upon himself to adopt his father’s middle name and thus become Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.”

TL: You knew his history bona fides would be superb with a middle name like Bancroft. I can’t believe young Arthur gave that up just to be like his father!

– “The younger Schlesinger in the first volume of his memoirs, A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950 (2000), called his childhood ‘sunny.’ “

TL: That’s really . . . nice! sweet! cute?

– “In Cambridge, Mass., Schlesinger was surrounded by his parents’ many influential friends, such as Western conservationist and historian Bernard DeVoto, future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, novelist John Dos Passos and humorist James Thurber.”

TL: I wonder if Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera dropped by for tea? I suppose the Schlesingers, et al, were a bit too waspy for them.

– “Young Arthur first attended public schools in Cambridge, but his parents lost faith in public education in his sophomore year after a civics teacher informed Arthur’s class that inhabitants of Albania were called Albinos and had white hair and pink eyes. He was sent to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.”

TL: I’m afraid I was probably told those things too, but I survived. Still, I’d consider removing my son (if I had one) from a school where that happened.

– “The intellectually precocious Schlesinger, who skipped the second and fourth grades, was a voracious reader who devoured the classics and historical novels. He also was devoted to studying the World Almanac, later recalling that he bored his parents and their guests at Sunday teas by reciting the population statistics of major world cities.”

TL: You wouldn’t want to play Trivial Pursuit that guy! I’m getting a John Stuart Mill vibe here.

– “Upon examining his son’s homework, the senior Schlesinger once commented, ‘I liked your essay . . . and know that you must have had fun writing it. There is always a little thrill one gets from saying things well.’ In recalling the incident decades later, Schlesinger wrote: ‘This last sentence for some reason has lingered in my mind ever since. It remains true.’ ”

TL: I can’t be snide or snarky about this charming anecdote. I get that thrill as well – although clearly less often than young Arthur, we shall see.

– ” At his father’s urging, he wrote his senior honors essay [at Harvard] on [Orestes A.] Brownson, the largely forgotten 19th century intellectual. His Harvard-professor father, who served as his thesis advisor, then encouraged his son to turn the essay into a book. . . . He was 21 when his first book, Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress, was published in 1939. In a review for the New York Times, renowned historian Henry Steele Commager said the book about the 19th century American intellectual ‘not only rescues from underserved oblivion a striking and authentic figure in our history, but announces a new and distinguished talent in the field of historical portraiture.’ “

TL: I once wrote a graduate paper on Brownson – a paper that was panned by my professor. It taught me to never mix biography with a history graduate course. If only I could’ve taken a history course with an encouraging father! . . . When I was 21 I was sadly only trying to figure out how to get out of the University of Missouri! Those were the equivalent of my dark ages as an appreciator of the liberal arts and humanities.

– “Rejected for combat duty during World War II due to poor eyesight, Schlesinger served in the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C.”

TL: I hope this wasn’t like those family-doctor deferments that occurred during Vietnam.

– “At 28, Schlesinger received his first Pulitzer Prize, for the 1945 bestseller The Age of Jackson, a reevaluation of Andrew Jackson’s presidency that, as Edwin A. Miles wrote in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, ‘stands as a significant landmark in the writing of the nation’s history.’ “

TL: At least by the age of 28, I firmly knew I wanted to be a historian. I think I also understood what the Pulitzer Prize was.

– “Schlesinger gained further acclaim in the 1950s for what many historians consider his greatest achievement: his multi-volume The Age of Roosevelt. The three volumes published between 1957 and 1960 were popular Book of the Month Club selections that, according to Miles, ‘attest to his superb style, felicity of phrase, keen sense of drama, and successful blending of narrative and analytical history.’ History professor Alan Brinkley of Columbia University told the Boston Globe in 1997 that Schlesinger in the first decade after World War II ‘was far and away the most influential historian of Jacksonian democracy, the New Deal and probably one of the two or three most influential historians of any sort’ in the United States.”

TL: Okay. If I can only write a book, win a Pulitzer, and publish an acclaimed three-volume series in the next five years, I can catch up – Boy Scout style – in terms of bragging rights and awards.

– “In 1947, he joined former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, economist John Kenneth Galbraith and others as founding members of Americans for Democratic Action, an influential liberal organization whose early efforts included fighting for the inclusion of a strong civil rights plank in the platform at the 1948 Democratic Convention.”

TL: Americans for Democratic Action lives on. You can visit its website here. [Note: Another article said the group began in 1946.]

– “Like many liberals of the 1940s, Schlesinger was also trying to reconcile support of the New Deal to the start of the Cold War. He responded by condemning both the far right and the far left, any system that denied the ‘perpetual tension’ of a dynamic democracy.”

TL: This might be the trait about Schlesinger I admire the most.

– “During the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, Schlesinger took leaves of absence from Harvard to work as an advisor and speech writer for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson.”

TL: I’ll bet historians make the best speech writers. I should look into this.

– “For some, Schlesinger’s dual roles as a historian and political activist were at odds. He saw it differently. ‘I always combined academic life with what academics call ‘the real world,” the slight and bespectacled Schlesinger, dapperly sporting one of his trademark bow ties, told the Boston Globe in 1997. ‘Being a concerned citizen does not prevent one from being a good historian.’ ”

TL: I’m not a political activist, but I admire Schlesinger’s activities and sentiment.

– “Former Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorenson once described the outspoken historian as ‘a lightning rod to attract Republican attacks away from the rest of us.’ “

TL: Schlesinger’s actions in this regard certainly amount to more than trying to balance the roles of citizen and historian. He clearly had an edge.

– “After Kennedy was assassinated, President Lyndon Johnson kept Schlesinger on but gave him virtually nothing to do.”

TL: It’s nice to see the LBJ was using public resources efficiently.

– “In late January 1964, two months after Kennedy’s assassination, the White House announced that Schlesinger had resigned as special assistant to President Johnson, effective March 1. ‘With Kennedy gone,’ Schlesinger later explained, ‘it was no longer exhilarating.’ After leaving the White House, he wrote A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, the 1965 book that earned him his second Pulitzer Prize and his first National Book Award.”

TL: Again, although I admire Schlesinger’s chutzpah, “exhilaration” is no basis for consistent, steady citizenship. Schlesinger admired the idea of J.F. Kennedy as much as the president, and therefore was clearly partisan. Another columnist (Douglas Martin) reflecting on Schlesinger’s partisanship noted the following: “Gore Vidal called A Thousand Days a political novel, and many noted that the book ignored the president’s sexual wanderings. Others were displeased he told so much, particularly taking the unusual step of claiming that the president was unhappy with his secretary of state, Dean Rusk.”

– “Among Schlesinger’s many books is one that added a popular phrase to the political lexicon: The Imperial Presidency (1973), his study of — and call to curb — the escalating power of the executive branch.”

TL: I don’t believe I knew, before reading this, that Schlesinger was credited with the phrase.

– “In his last book, War and the American Presidency, published in 2004, Schlesinger challenged the foundations of the foreign policy of President Bush, calling the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath ‘a ghastly mess.’ He said the president’s curbs on civil liberties would have the same result as similar actions throughout history. ‘We hate ourselves in the morning,’ he wrote.”

TL: All too true.

– “Stephen Schlesinger and his brother Andrew currently are editing, for the Penguin publishing house, a two-volume set due out this fall of the historian’s diaries from 1952 through 1998. ‘He’ll still be very much a public figure with those journals,’ Stephen Schlesinger said.”

TL: Hmmm . . . Is this where we learn that he too, like LBJ, hit on Jackie-O in the year after JFK’s death?! Just kidding – I hope.


Other things noted about Schlesinger’s overall characteristics and work:

– “With his bow ties and horn-rimmed glasses, Schlesinger seemed the very image of a reserved, tweedy scholar. But he was an assured member of the so-called Eastern elite, friendly with everyone from Mary McCarthy [author not screenwriter] to Katharine Graham and enough of a sport to swim fully clothed in the pool of then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy.” Jonathan Zimmerman noted: “The tie was a central part of this great historian’s public persona: On television or in the newspaper, he never appeared without it.”
– “Being a liberal, Schlesinger once observed, means regarding man as ‘neither brute nor angel.’ Whether discussing the Kennedys, Vietnam or the power of the presidency, Schlesinger sought moderation, the middle course. He blamed the Vietnam War on the moral extremism of the right and left and worried that the executive branch had become ‘imperial,’ calling for a ‘strong presidency within the Constitution.’ He saw American history itself as a continuing ‘cycle’ between liberal and conservative power.”
– “With the death last week of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., at 89, America lost its last great public historian. . . . Mr. Schlesinger . . . stood at the forefront of a remarkable generation of academic historians. Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970, and C. Vann Woodward, who died in 1999, were its other towering figures. All three, reciprocal admirers, wrote classic works that reanimated the past even as they rummaged in it for clues to understanding, if not solving, the most pressing political questions of the present. As a result, new books by these historians often generated excitement and conveyed an urgency felt not only by other scholars but also by the broader population of informed readers.” (from the Tanenhaus article)
– With the same sentiment as Tanenhaus in mind, Jonathan Zimmerman reflected: “Schlesinger’s death, at age 89, also marks the passing of a certain kind of publicly oriented historian. Once upon a time, the leading members of our guild wrote books for general readers. But all of that has changed in the past three decades, with disastrous consequences for our profession–and, I think, for the public as well.”

Most of the quotes above about Schlesinger’s role as a moderate liberal came from the AP piece by Hillel Italie. I liked that article quite a bit. – TL


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  1. Even as an Americanist, I had never given much thought to Jr.'s overall career – thank you for this insightful overview. I learned a lot.
    Can you *imagine* someone's parent being allowed to advise/direct a thesis today?!


  2. Tiff: I'm glad you liked the piece. I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be a composition where the author is the only reader. – TL


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