Review of Richard Aldous's "Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian" (W. W. Norton, 2017)


Luther Spoehr is an HNN reviewer and a Senior Lecturer at Brown University.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007), best remembered today as “court historian” in President John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot,” was a superbly vivid writer, a productive and versatile scholar, and very much his father’s son—to the point that some referred to him as a “daddy’s boy.”  And not without reason.  In his teens, the precocious young Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger changed his name to Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr.  By then his father was already an established historian at Harvard, which Arthur, Jr. attended under Senior’s watchful eye.  While Junior studied abroad after graduation, Senior shepherded his senior thesis on Orestes Brownson to publication, even enlisting his friend Bernard DeVoto (who hadn’t actually read it) to move things along at Little, Brown.  Senior edited the page proofs for The Age of Jackson, soon to win a Pulitzer Prize, while Junior served (unhappily) in the military during World War II. And Senior helped to smooth Junior’s path to a Harvard appointment and tenure.

Military service was a series of slaps in the face for Private Schlesinger, but even there his Harvard connections—a kind of extended family—helped ease his unhappiness.  “Since childhood,” says biographer Richard Aldous, “he had lived within the privileged embrace of Harvard University, always encouraged to think that he was special, and producing results that made such an opinion seem justified.” 

That statement in many ways sums up Aldous’s assessment of Schlesinger’s life and work.  It is tempting to characterize Schlesinger as, to use a phrase applied to George W. Bush, someone “who was born on third base and thought he had hit a triple.”  And Aldous, a historian at Bard College, the first biographer to have access to Schlesinger’s personal papers and journals, does not shrink from depicting his subject taking advantage of being an insider.  But Aldous is also careful to enumerate the “results,” the writing and the activity, that this Harvard insider produced.  The Age of Jackson (1945), Aldous says, was “underpinned by vast research and written with great panache.”  He also notes Schlesinger’s honest regrets, expressed years later: “when I wrote The Age of Jackson, the predicament of women, of blacks, of Indians was shamefully out of mind.” 

Such balance serves Aldous well throughout this biography, which focuses mainly on Schlesinger’s most active years, from the end of World War II through the Watergate era, when he wrote influential political argument, including a Cold War classic, The Vital Center (1949); a trilogy (with remaining volumes never completed) on the Age of Roosevelt (1957, 1958, 1960); and, most famously, his history of his time with JFK, A Thousand Days (which also won a Pulitzer).  Most abstractly, Aldous presents Schlesinger as a complicated case study of the intellectual who aspires to power, a self-described “action-intellectual” who never quite resolved the potential contradictions between those two terms.

Even as an undergraduate, Schlesinger seemed impatient with academic life:  “The only knowledge worth anything is grounded in experience,” he wrote.  And at the dawn of the “American Century” after World War II, he tried more and more to make history as well as understand it:  he helped to found the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, wrote speeches for Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, and then finally backed a winner and moved into JFK’s orbit.

Once there, however, he was at best a minor planet.  Chief speechwriter Ted Sorensen actively avoided his help, and he couldn’t penetrate JFK’s “Irish Mafia.”  His office was in the East Wing, a remote outpost far from the action in the West Wing.  Press Secretary Pierre Salinger dismissed him as merely “liaison with United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.” The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee was more positive:  JFK “admired [him] as a historian [and] liked [him] enormously as a person.”  Given JFK’s sense of history, the President wanted the “insider’s account” of his administration to be written by the best, most sympathetic historian available.  And Schlesinger went along.   If that meant that much of his contact with the President was sipping cocktails and chatting with him at the end of JFK’s long day, so be it.

There were costs.  In 1962, Harvard made him choose between his tenured position and staying on at the White House.   He made his choice, and then on November 22, 1963, his world was, to use his own word, “shattered.”  His first instinct: get to his typewriter.  While the Kennedy family was still arguing over whether the coffin should be open or closed, speechwriter Richard Goodwin found Schlesinger in his study, beavering away.  It revealed his “first principle,” says Aldous:  “He was always ready to write.”  Within two years, he had written A Thousand Days-- over a thousand pages of hero worship--and received his second Pulitzer Prize.

Schlesinger always claimed that being close to the action allowed him to capture details, atmosphere, and mood that more distant historians could not.  But proximity also had its disadvantages—willfully or not, his account omitted the seamier sides of too many of Camelot’s policies and personalities.  And as tawdry revelations tarnished the Kennedy legacy, people like Schlesinger who had benefited from gilt by association were increasingly tainted with guilt by association.  He returned to academia, becoming Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center, but never really left the political arena.  During the Watergate crisis, he wrote The Imperial Presidency, arguing that a too-powerful executive endangered American democracy.  For someone who had extolled powerful presidents from Jackson to FDR as avatars of democracy and envisioned JFK as their apotheosis, it was a striking about-face, one that was duly noted by his critics—and, to his great credit, by himself.  Like Emerson, another one of his heroes, he would argue that a foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds.

Displays of intellectual flexibility, however, could not slow the unraveling of liberalism in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era.  Nevertheless, Schlesinger tried.  His Disuniting of America (1991) decried the dangers of multiculturalism and identity politics in terms being echoed in some quarters today.  Whether liberalism today means too many things or nothing, it has been on the defensive for decades, and only with the coming of Trumpism is the center-left beginning to mount a serious rally.

When he died in 2007, Schlesinger had written over 25 books and received--in addition to the two Pulitzers--a Bancroft Prize and a Parkman Prize (both for Crisis of the Old Order), and a National Book Award (for his biography of Robert Kennedy).  Aldous does not discuss in detail all of his historical writing, or even mention all of the countless articles on current affairs and other ephemera that Schlesinger produced as public intellectual and political activist.  But, although Aldous’s historiographical treatments are abbreviated, he provides pointed analyses of the most important works and shows how each of them grew out of his subject’s wide-ranging interests and extraordinary ability to write with the speed of thought.  His portrayal of Schlesinger’s sometimes turbulent first marriage is candid without being gossipy (he and Marian Cannon divorced in 1970), and his instructive use of interviews with both of Schlesinger’s wives and his children brings additional facets of a complicated man into focus, without descending into psychological jargon. 

In short, it is hard to imagine a better, more readable, more nuanced portrait of this complex “action-intellectual.”  At first glance, it’s easy to see why Aldous titled the book “Imperial Historian,” for Schlesinger set himself up as the chronicler of an emerging American empire, even if he wouldn’t have been exactly enamored of the word “empire.”  Like many of the canonical American writers he liked to quote, he could sound definitive about anything and everything, even if his latest flat-footed, well-crafted statement might contradict an equally well-crafted one from his past. 

On the book’s cover, partially reproduced with this review, Schlesinger is shown in his prime, standing behind the desk in his study, wearing a suit (but not his trademark bowtie), with shelves of books and politicians’ portraits behind him; he is leaning forward and glaring straight into the camera.  From the looks of it, the book’s title could have been “Imperious Historian.”  Then again, as Aldous shows, Schlesinger came to be perhaps less certain of his certainties as he aged and the country changed.  “The future outwits all our certitudes,” he said.  “History is the best antidote to delusions of omnipotence and omniscience.  And he quoted Oscar Wilde:  “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”  It will be a while, however, before we need to rewrite Aldous’s biography.



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