Sean Wilentz on Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Historians in the News

Few historians write personal journals that deserve publication, which is not surprising. How much interest can there be in the academic controversies and petty jealousies that dominate the lives of working historians, much less in the archives, the private libraries, and the lecture halls where they spend so much of their time? Novelists, poets, and literary critics--Alfred Kazin is a recent example--have the gifts, and the sensibilities, required to dramatize their inner lives and the world around them in journals and diaries. But historians, who crave the journals of others, usually lack the inner and outer experience to write appealing journals of their own.

Of course there are exceptions. Until now, the best-known journals written by an American historian were Francis Parkman's, written between 1841 and 1892, and published in 1947. The finest of them--the record of a hunting trip that Parkman took to the West in 1846, when he was only twenty-two and had just graduated from Harvard--became the basis for his most famous work, The Oregon Trail. As might be expected from his more formal writing, Parkman's Oregon Trail journal mainly described Indians, fellow sojourners, and natural wonders. But not all of the time: early in his trip westward, while he was in St. Louis, Parkman happened upon a crowd that had clogged the sidewalk and surrounded none other than Henry Clay, the sometime senator and perennial presidential candidate, who was in town on business. A permanent campaigner, Clay engaged his admirers in good-humored conversation, and at one point asked an old man for a pinch of snuff. "The mob was gratified," Parkman recounted, "and the old man, striking his cane on the bricks, declared emphatically that Clay was the greatest man in the nation, and that it was a burning shame he was not in the presidential chair." The young historian was not amused: "So much for the arts by which politicians--even the best of them--thrive," he acerbically noted.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. had Harvard and history-writing in common with Francis Parkman, but little else. When he wasn't visiting Europe or headed off into the wilds, Parkman composed his monumental volumes on early North America locked away mentally and physically, afflicted by a variety of psychological and neurological maladies. Schlesinger, a sunny-tempered bon vivant, found the time to complete a body of scholarly work comparable to Parkman's--as well as to write some six thousand manuscript pages of journal entries covering nearly half a century, of which less than one-fifth appears in this edited volume-- while also teaching, lecturing, reviewing books and movies, drafting political speeches, advising candidates and presidents, and pursuing a social life so frenetic that it might seem wearisome if Schlesinger didn't make it sound so delightful.

Although both Parkman and Schlesinger were blessed with acute powers of analysis and description, Schlesinger led a life unlike that of any other American historian of his time or any other (apart, perhaps, from his distant putative forebear, the patrician historian and Jacksonian politico George Bancroft). Brilliant, curious, and dauntingly energetic, Schlesinger tried to reach the pinnacle of the nation's political and intellectual endeavors, and he succeeded. But he also paid a price for his influence and celebrity, as these engrossing and vivacious journals demonstrate from time to time. Seriousness turns out to be a very demanding calling, and vivacity can get in the way....

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