Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: As remembered by Norman Birnbaum

Historians in the News

[Norman Birnbaum is a professor emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center and a member of the editorial board of The Nation. His books include After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2001), and he is at work on a memoir.]

first met Arthur when I came to Harvard as a graduate student in sociology, in 1947, and I had the good fortune to see a lot of him. From 1949 to 1952, I was a resident tutor at Adams House, the residence hall with which Arthur was associated, and we were often together at lunch. We had good friends in common: the philosopher and historian of American intellectual life Morton White and his wife and co-author, Lucia. (Arthur was justly enthusiastic about Morton's splendid book on Charles Beard, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, and Thorstein Veblen -- Social Thought in America.)

Imperial Harvard in those years prided itself on two things. One was its closeness to power: Commuting to Washington gave members of the faculty great status. It was the period in which the similarity between the Harvard faculty and the Strategic Air Command was noted: One-third of each was airborne at any given moment. The second was academic and disciplinary rigor. What was missing, or distinctly underemphasized, were ideas. (I recall the skepticism, verging on derision, with which the cognoscenti at Harvard greeted Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, with one later-eminent historian telling me: "She knows no history.") It was a time in which a clever undergraduate could manage very well for four years with a very limited reading list: Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Joseph A. Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, and Melville's Moby-Dick. This last stood for a "tragic" approach to life -- something most people at Harvard had not entirely experienced.

Arthur -- with his combative involvement in politics, his public arguments over the nascent cold war with lively colleagues like H. Stuart Hughes and Perry G. Miller, his attentiveness to events abroad (he was at the founding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, in Berlin), his realization of the importance of Marxism even as he denounced Stalinism -- conveyed the immediacy of the history we were living. He was, in short, no technocrat -- and that set him apart from most of the discreet counselors to Congress and the executive branch who populated the social sciences in Cambridge.

Arthur was, of course, a cultural and social historian. He later apologized for ignoring Andrew Jackson's racism toward African-Americans and American Indians -- indeed, Jackson's exterminationist views toward the latter. Arthur wasn't the only one to dodge such matters. In sociology, what I did not hear about were class, gender, and race in the United States. Per contra, there was a great deal of labored discussion about constructing a "science" of society or of "human action." (Morton White termed it "methodolatry.")...

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