The legacy of historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Bringing out the dead.
March 1 2007 6:50 PM

Not Just Camelot's Historian

The vibrant scholarship of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger. Click image to expand.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

The first meeting I ever attended of the American Historical Association included a session about Oliver Stone's 1995 film Nixon. The panel included Stone, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and George McGovern—the only one, as it happened, with a history Ph.D. (Schlesinger did his graduate work as a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, which then forbade the pursuit of Ph.D.s.) The audience filled a ballroom at the Hilton in midtown New York. McGovern said nothing critical about the film, and it fell to Schlesinger to dissect its bizarre, psycho-conspiratorial reading of history. Given the roughing up that Stone's JFK had gotten, I expected the academics in the crowd to follow Schlesinger's lead. Instead, during the question time, they went after the historian himself, grilling him about Cold War intrigues from the assassination of the Congo's Patrice Lumumba to U.S. political meddling in British Guyana. * Though Schlesinger parried well, he seemed relieved when time expired, and, as he and McGovern huddled afterward, Stone exited, unbowed, past a gantlet of autograph-seeking Ph.D.s.

The scene at the AHA captured the unusual place in the world of historical scholarship occupied by Schlesinger, who died Wednesday at 89. The audience he commanded at the Hilton showed that he remained as much a luminary within the profession as he was outside it. And for those of us who have always believed that historians should write for lay readers and fellow scholars, Schlesinger will remain an incomparable model. Yet for all his renown, many academics viewed Schlesinger with disdain—only a portion of which could be attributed to the snarls of professional jealousy that greet any colleague who writes best sellers, let alone consorts with the Kennedys.

Like his peer Richard Hofstadter, Schlesinger wrote history that was popular, without writing "popular history." He once said he regretted writing so many articles on current events and not enough books. That claim seems plausible if you consider his journalistic output—opinion-journal think-pieces, New York Post and Wall Street Journal columns, book reviews by the ream, film criticism and celebrity profiles for the glossies—as well as the sad fact that he never published the long-anticipated fourth volume of his Age of Roosevelt (1957-1960) or the second part of his memoirs. But if you take the books themselves—at least eight of which, by my count, stand as classics or near-classics—the comment seems falsely modest. Surely, Schlesinger must have been tossing off his op-ed pieces during his downtime, when less industrious writers might watch TV or work overtime to hone the kinds of sterling sentences that came so easily from Schlesinger's dazzling mind.

The literary merit of these works was inseparable from their intellectual achievements. I once came across a statement by Schlesinger explaining his approach to writing history, and the passage is worth taping to the office wall:

It has always seemed to me that the trick of writing history is to fuse narrative and analysis in a consistent literary texture. The history which is purely narrative … I find … ultimately unsatisfactory. It's not enough to describe the events … without giving some indication why they were happening. … Purely analytical history … by leaving out the emotions and the color and the atmosphere … is dehydrated history …. . [I]t doesn't recreate the mood in which the choices were made.  [What] one must try to do … is to write a combination of narrative and analytical history.

Schlesinger's genius, in part, was to find that precise combination as assuredly as any historian I've read.

This stylistic brilliance wouldn't earn him greatness, of course, if his ideas didn't still matter. But they do. The Age of Jackson (1945) is the starting point for understanding how American liberalism began to inch away from the anti-statism of Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson and toward the embrace of a strong government. A Thousand Days (1965) and Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), while open to the charge of court history, nonetheless loom large before anyone who wants to write about the Kennedys. The Imperial Presidency (1973), though in some ways an artifact of the Nixon era,stands as the best history of the growth of presidential power since World War II. And The Vital Center (1949)—a political argument rather than a work of history proper—mines the past in search of insight for the present in the best way, finding strains to lament as well as to admire in the liberal tradition that Schlesinger loved. Today, the book is inspiring a new generation of tough-minded liberals.

Schlesinger's undisguised political commitments—not only his polemics but his role in founding Americans for Democratic Action, his speechwriting for Adlai Stevenson, his service in the Kennedy White House—invited the charge that he "writes as he votes."  When I was in graduate school, I still heard the generations-old quip that The Age of Jackson is a wonderful work of history—about the New Deal. (The book credits Andrew Jackson with vitalizing the idea of using presidential power on behalf of ordinary folk.)

Interestingly, though, comparatively few of Schlesinger's peers denied his greatness. The challenge came, rather, from younger scholars in the 1960s who found him insufficiently radical, too scornful of left-wing utopianism (a chief target of in The Vital Center), too enamored of power, and too closely attached to the Kennedys and the Democratic Party. Christopher Lasch, one of Schlesinger's harsher critics, accused him—and other like-minded liberal intellectuals—of having been seduced by JFK's style. Others said that Schlesinger whitewashed the administration's actions in episodes from the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the New Left generation gained influence in the profession, Schlesinger's stock in academia fell.

The root of the academic left's unhappiness with Schlesinger, I think, was his steadfast realism—his willingness to accept (without fully endorsing) the limits on social change imposed by democratic politics. He likened critics such as Lasch to the sentimental progressives who had backed Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential campaign and other exemplars of what he called the "doughface" tradition of preferring ideological purity over concrete results. "The left-wing critique of the Kennedy administration," he wrote at the time, was "a new expression of the old complaint by those who find satisfaction in large gestures of rejection against those who find satisfaction in small measures of improvement."

Indeed, Schlesinger's own decision to join the Kennedy team and forsake his old hero Adlai Stevenson resulted from his recognition that Stevenson lacked the comfort with politics and power that would be necessary to govern well. Schlesinger concluded by mid-1960 that Stevenson was showing too much "frivolity, distractedness, over-interest in words and phrases," while Kennedy "gives a sense of cool, measured, intelligent concern with action and power. … [Though] less creative personally, he might be more so politically." Yet when asked which figure in his lifetime he would have liked to have seen in the White House, he invariably answered, "Adlai Stevenson." Hope and realism coexisted.

Schlesinger favored liberal realism over left-wing utopianism because the latter philosophy posited the existence of a future free from struggle, whereas Schlesinger, deeply influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, subscribed to a secularized idea of original sin that considered human nature inherently flawed. (He joked that he and his fellow admirers of the midcentury theologian called themselves "Atheists for Niebuhr.") And from John Dewey he took the insight of democracy as a practice that won't ever coast to a halt in some well-functioning steady state but must continually be renewed through purposeful engagement and action.

It made sense, then, that Schlesinger found stories of dramatic struggle throughout the American past, from the Age of Jackson to the Age of Roosevelt, and he told them with insight, commitment, and panache. But it made sense, too, that he also found implacable conflict in his own age—in the indifference of the Eisenhower years, the dedication to reform of the Kennedys, the power lust of Nixon, and the unthinking willfulness of George W. Bush. If Arthur Schlesinger spent rather too much time, by his own lights, joining the battles of a given day, it was because he believed that the state of American democracy, not just in the future but in the present, was worth it.

Correction, March 1, 2007: The article originally and incorrectly described Patrice Lumuba as being a leader from Ghana. He was the prime minister of the Congo. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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