Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: Liberalism's Historian

Historians in the News
tags: JFK, liberalism, Arthur M Schlesinger Jr



James M. Banner Jr.’s second edition of The Elements of Teaching, coauthored with the late Harold C. Cannon, has just been published by Yale.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. possessed the most sparkling intelligence of his generation of historians. He may not have had the most subtle or profound mind, but his was the most effervescent disposition, and no one could surpass him in sheer energy, knowledge, and skill as scholar and writer. Prodigiously productive, he could turn out 5,000 words of prose a day—roughly 20 double-spaced pages of text. Known for his bonhomie, he was a delight in company. And as I learned from my associations with him as a fellow historian, he was also a consummate professional, one who treated the welfare of the discipline in which he was a leading figure with the same seriousness he devoted to historical study and public affairs.

No one is likely to complain that Richard Aldous’s new biography of Schlesinger has failed to capture the totality of its subject’s life, from youth to old age. Aldous writes with a verve and clarity that matches Schlesinger’s, and offers as balanced a presentation as can be imagined of a man who, while considering himself a figure of the political center, usually found himself, as most others saw him, on the left. An appropriately hard critic of Schlesinger’s faults and errors, Aldous, a professor of British history and literature at Bard College, takes care to allot Schlesinger’s critics plenty of ink in the book’s pages. This is by no means a whitewash.

Schlesinger was a son of the Midwest, not of the New England with which he’s so often associated. His father’s family was of German-Jewish stock, his mother of deep New England roots and distantly related to the great historian George Bancroft. Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. long served as a noted member of the Harvard history faculty, in whose orbit Arthur Jr. grew up and into professional maturity. One can complain that Aldous fails to give adequate emphasis to the context of the Schlesinger family’s progress into the American middle class. Upward-striving German Jews’ assimilation proved easier than that of their Eastern European coreligionists (from whom they often stood apart) because they arrived earlier and in smaller numbers. But Aldous’s short-wordedness on this account is understandable inasmuch as by the time Schlesinger Jr. was an experienced historian, the world took him, as it took his father, to be echt Harvard. And why not? The younger Schlesinger had gone to college there and been a member of its prestigious Society of Fellows. Assimilation had been relatively quick and complete. Not for nothing would Schlesinger’s future critics deride him and many others who likewise served in John F. Kennedy’s administration as “the Harvards.” Could there be assimilation any more successful than acceptance as a leading member of the northeastern elite?

Aldous deals with the facts of Schlesinger’s rise to success more fully than he does the family’s integration into the northeastern intellectual empyrean. It comes as a revelation—one strengthened by the author’s having secured interviews with Arthur Jr.’s children and two wives—how emotionally and professionally dependent the younger man remained on his father. A pedal point of the entire book is the way the father promoted his son’s advancement while the son sought guidance and succor from his parent and seemed unable, despite some evidence of his wish to do so, to break free of his father’s enveloping oversight.

Schlesinger initially came to public notice as a scholar—one, it should be noted, who never secured a Ph.D. in history. His first big book, The Age of Jackson, was a kind of scholarly coup de foudre. It forced reconsideration of a hoary line of argument going back to the days of the great historian Frederick Jackson Turner, whose “school” had situated the center of Andrew Jackson’s majority Democratic party in the West and on farms. By contrast, Schlesinger situated Jackson’s antebellum party among urban working people of the East. As a result of his book, which won Schlesinger his first Pulitzer Prize, the history of 19th-century American politics has never since been the same. One has to contend with Schlesinger’s interpretation every step of the way. ...





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