[Note: One of the things I tried to do while editor of the History Department Newsletter (1999-2000; 2006-2010) was to keep my colleagues informed of the passing of various noted historians. Usually, I could find an obituary in a historical journal and extract a paragraph from it for the newsletter, but, in the case of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., I felt compelled to add my two-cents worth. To me, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was a historian who mattered. What follows is a revised and expanded version of that obituary.]
For those of us of a certain age, the recent passing of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., was the end of an era. He wrote history and, in a modest way, helped to make it, too. Somehow, this Ivy League-trained historian had wound up in the inner circle of the Kennedy Administration. Not that any of the rest of us could hope to emulate him, but still. . . .
I heard of Schlesinger’s first book, The Age of Jackson (1945), while in college and of course had to read it in grad school. I also was drawn to Schlesinger’s hefty, semi-official history of JFK’s presidency, A Thousand Days (1965), which had both the strengths and the weaknesses associated with “court history,” as did his biography, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), produced in the wake of yet another horrific assassination. In more recent years, I was enthralled by Schlesinger’s autobiographical work, A Life in the 20th Century (2000), which covers his life and times through 1950. (Of course, I must admit that, as a historian, I am easily “enthralled” by any historian’s autobiography!)
Author of The Vital Center (1949), Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., was an architect of “liberal anticommunism” after World War II (with more emphasis on the second of those terms than on the first), and one of the founders of the liberal, anticommunist pressure group, Americans for Democratic Action. His assault on The Imperial Presidency (1973) placed much of the blame for that lamentable development on President Richard M. Nixon, while downplaying the roles of Nixon’s Democratic predecessors in the process.
Never one to hide his ideology under a bushel, Schlesinger spent a lot of time (way too much time, he sometimes thought–and some of us who admired him might have agreed) as what we now call being a “public intellectual,” regularly cranking out essays, speeches, and book reviews offering his “liberal” slant on current affairs. Not an important election, the passing of a significant figure in American politics, or coverage of a generational commemoration of some person or event in a national news magazine or The New York Times was complete without an op-ed from Professor Schlesinger. He was, in essence, a blogger, even though he never had a blog of his own.
And, whether they agreed with his views or not, most people who read anything by Schlesinger came away admiring his writing style. In an obituary in the online magazine Slate, Rutgers University historian David Greenberg quoted with approval Schlesinger’s own explanation of his approach to writing history:
[I]t has always seemed to me that the trick of writing history is to fuse narrative and analysis in a consistent literary texture. The history which is purely narrative . . . I find ultimately unsatisfactory. It’s not enough to describe the events. . . without giving some indication why they were happening. . . . Purely analytical history . . . , by leaving out the emotions and the color and the atmosphere, . . . is dehydrated history. . . . [I]t doesn’t recreate the mood in which the choices were made. [What] one must try to do . . . is to write a combination of narrative and analytical history.
In one of his last published essays, an op-ed piece in The New York Times, “Folly’s Antidote,” in which he castigated President George W. Bush’s administration for its alleged ignorance of “the lessons of history,” Schlesinger offered a stirring definition of the value of studying the past:
The great strength of history in a free society is its capacity for self-correction. This is the endless excitement of historical writing–the search to reconstruct what went before, a quest illuminated by those ever-changing prisms that continually place old questions in a new light. History is a doomed enterprise that we happily pursue because of the thrill of the hunt, because exploring the past is such fun, because of the intellectual challenges involved, because a nation needs to know its own history. Or so we historians insist. Because in the end, a nation’s history must be both the guide and the domain not so much of its historians as its citizens.
In other words, to Schlesinger, the key is that a historian presents his interpretation of an issue, event, person, or period in the nation’s past that he believes is worthy of consideration by educated citizens. Those readers, in turn, consider what they have been offered by the historian, then make their decision, based on their educated–not necessarily ideological–view of the historian’s argument. What a concept! Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., if only he were with us now. . . . I would love to see his informed take on the Internet and blogging. But, alas, no!
* * * * * *
For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: