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Mar 1, 2007 10:38 pm

Arthur Schlesinger: The Last Progressive

Arthur Schlesinger’s death, February 28, 2007, marks the passing of an era in numerous ways. Many people will remember him as perhaps the last of the great generation of public intellectuals who came of age in the 1930s, were concentrated in the New York-Boston corridor, and flowered in the 1950s. Others will recall him as a noted political activist. Or as a literary figure who collected Pulitzers, National Book Awards, and other honors almost as if they were Crackerjack charms. Students of the historical profession may think of him as the most prominent of a small group of scholars who kept the old Charles A. Beard-Vernon Parrington “progressive” interpretation of American history alive against the onslaught of “consensus history” for two decades after the end of World War II with such works as The Age of Jackson and his three-volume The Age of Roosevelt. His achievements are very well recounted in Douglas Martin’s fine New York Times obituary. I will say a few things about them, but I also want to add a few personal recollections.

My first encounter with Arthur Schlesinger’s work came when as a sixteen-year old college freshman I read an excerpt from his forthcoming The Age of Roosevelt: The Crisis of the Old Order in Esquire magazine. It was on the young Franklin Delano Roosevelt battling the Tammany machine as a freshman state senator in Albany. The prose was vivid and eloquent. I was hooked and aspired for a time to be one of his graduate students.

My personal encounters were, as it turned out, few, but always pleasant. While working on A Thousand Days, he was kind enough to give some time to a graduate student writing a dissertation on post-World War II American liberalism. Later on, he agreed to be on an AHA panel that I organized. On one or two occasions, he wrote letters in my behalf.

Twice, he spoke at Ohio University. One of those times, I drove him down to Athens from the airport in Columbus, dropped him off at the Ohio University Inn, then went to collect my wife for a dinner with the university president and other guests. Would cocktails be served, he asked, or should he go ahead and have a quick martini? We were running late. I knew that the president of Ohio University was a man of resolute moderation, but I crossed my fingers and told him I was sure drinks would be served.

Presently, the three of us arrived at the president’s house and were ushered into a parlor for a brief conversation before dinner. A waiter appeared with a tray of glasses filled with warm tomato juice. Arthur looked just a bit ill, but took one. (As I recall, we were able to make up the missed opportunity at the end of the evening.) At dinner, one of the guests—the wife of a prominent local attorney and university trustee—made it clear that she had read and loved the Roosevelt books and other works. A well-educated and literate woman, she gave me a sense of just how wide his audience was.

Arthur Schlesinger, more than any other postwar figure, extended the life of the Beardian progressive school by modernizing it in at least three ways, all of which stand out in The Age of Jackson and The Age of Roosevelt. He repudiated Beard’s continental isolationism, and was a leading voice in the scholarly rejection of Beard’s attacks on Franklin Roosevelt’s pre-Pearl Harbor foreign policy. While emphasizing class and economic divisions in American society, Schlesinger gave equivalent space to ideas and ideology; he recognized that after World War II politics had to be explained in terms of fundamental values, not just economics. Most forcefully, he renounced the optimistic and rationalistic views of human nature implicit in Beard’s social-democratic outlook. More than any other vehicle, his The Vital Center brought the neo-orthodoxy of Reinhold Niebuhr into the worldview of a secular American liberalism in the two decades after World War II. It equally persuaded many that the totalitarianism of the left in the Soviet Union possessed no more merit that the totalitarianism of the right.

What remains of value in Schlesinger’s work as a historian? My personal take is that The Age of Jackson is one of those books that may be wrong on many things but still needs to be read by anyone with a serious scholarly interest in the period. The Age of Roosevelt volumes stand up very well. A Thousand Days (about a page a day) was written too soon to be definitive; at most, it is a useful primary source. Robert F. Kennedy on the other hand seems to me a splendid biography, which also incorporates a somewhat more thoughtful interpretation of the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The Disuniting of America should be read by anyone who wants to know what it means to be an American.

Schlesinger made no pretense at Olympian objectivity in these or his other books, and at times displayed a weakness for the cheap shot. Nonetheless, the scholarship and literary merit was of the highest order.

Finally, if you have not done so, read his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century. It is an enthralling piece of work.

I have long regretted that he never finished the Roosevelt work. I have a sneaking suspicion that emotionally he preferred to stop with his hero’s greatest triumph, the 1936 election, and would have found an account of the decline of the New Deal in the later 1930s hard to do. I also regret that he became so enmeshed with the Kennedys, if only because the entanglement diverted him from his historical vocation and left him open to attack as a court historian. All that understood, it is to the everlasting disgrace of American Historical Association activists that he was never the AHA’s president.

In his later years, Arthur Schlesinger’s partisanship hardened in ways that did not always strike me as attractive, but I never lost my admiration for him as one of the finest historians of our time.

He died while at dinner with his family. I hope he had time to savor that last martini.

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More Comments:

Manfred Jonas - 3/9/2007

I could not agree with you more. Arthur directed my dissertation 50 odd years ago and proved to be a conscientious and extremely helpful mentor---even though he never improved my writing to get it into his league. His work, starting with The Age of Jackson, served as an inspiration to me as it did for you and many others, and his notion of a vital center makes more sense than that of any of his critics. The AHA did not do itself proud by failing to recognize his contributions to the profession.

Adam Carman - 3/7/2007

I recently finished an historiography paper on the New Deal and while I was shocked to see the attacks on Schlesinger, someone I always admired, I must say his work stood up well. While others of both Left and Right persuasion accused him of "ill-concealed hero worship" (Conkin), I found his books to be quite even-handed in their treatment of FDR's policies if not the man himself (whom Schlesinger clearly admired). I agree with the assessment that his association with the Kennedys probably hurt him, but I fear that in losing him the historical profession has lost a giant. May his reputation live on!

Rick Shenkman - 3/2/2007


That last line of your post is precious.

It's gotten my day off to a great start.

Thank you!