Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: As remembered by Sean Wilentz





I knew that one day I'd be reading in the paper about Arthur's death, but never really believed it. He was too intensely, happily alive - too energetic. The consummate New Yorker, he was a man about town even as he began to fail physically in the final months. Those of us who were lucky enough to share his incandescence are sad today, but also bewildered. We truly will not ever see his likes again.

He was an extraordinary historian both as narrator and interpreter. A scholar is considered fortunate if one or two of his or her books gets recognized, and if that scholarship opens anew a particular field of study. Arthur's score of books earned much more recognition than that, and set the terms of study for three entire eras of American history, in the times of Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. But Arthur was also an extraordinary public citizen, a patriot in the sense of sacrificing his precious time and energy for the good of his party, his country, and the world. He would have written even more history had he not devoted so much of his time to writing speeches (for his favorite candidates as well as himself) and other citizenly duties. But then, without his political activity - defending liberalism from all comers, right and left - his historical writings would have suffered. Our politics would have suffered as well.

Many of Arthur's critics complained that his political opinions tainted his writing about the past, and robbed it of objectivity. The criticism was unfair. Arthur knew that objectivity is not the same thing as neutrality. He presented his historical arguments with abundant research and powerful logic, bidding others to challenge his conclusions. And he was always willing (with a graciousness uncommon among professors) to admit when he was wrong. He often quoted the great Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, that "history is argument without end". Historical truth, or its closest approximation, does not arise perfected from the writings of all-knowing, objective historians, but from those unceasing arguments....



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list