Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

A Life in the Twentieth Century

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A Life in the Twentieth Century Summary

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Weighing in at a hefty 556 pages, noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s memoir, A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings (2000) prompted one reviewer to write, “The mere fact that he felt the first thirty-three years of his life worthy of a 556-page memoir demonstrates either hubris or a life truly worth living.” As might be expected of a historian, Schlesinger very much frames his personal life in terms of prevailing sociopolitical movements and moods, interweaving his individual story into that of his country.

Born in 1917, in Columbus, Ohio, the son of formidable Progressive School historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr., and the grandson of “America’s first historian” George Bancroft, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. grew up steeped in academe and history. Schlesinger Sr. and his own mentor, Charles Beard, had fundamentally reshaped the study of history in the United States, making possible the subfield of social history, as well as, later, more pointed histories of race and gender in the U.S. Schlesinger writes of the differences between his father’s approach to history and the later, identity-inflected studies that would rise to prominence in the 1990s: “My father and his generation saw multiculturalism as a stage in the absorption of newcomers into an American nationality and culture that they remolded as they entered.” On the other hand, in the 1990s, Schlesinger wrote, “Ideologues saw ethnicity as the defining experience for Americans. Multiculturalism in this militant version rejected the concept of a common culture and of a single American nationality.” This brand of multiculturalism would become one of the historian’s most notable pet peeves, and in his professional life, he made a reputation for himself by arguing against it.

Even as a child, Schlesinger loved to read, inhaling books at great speed for one so young; he spends many pages in the memoir recounting his favorites – and retroactively injecting some rather sharp criticism of these literary touchstones. He writes, for instance, “I remember liking Swiss Family Robinson as a child. But when I later read Johann Wyss’s rip-off of Crusoe to my own children, the Robinson family seemed to me a pack of bloodthirsty Calvinists who spent an inordinate time (a) in praying and (b) in massacring inoffensive animals.” Unsurprisingly, Schlesinger was a top student. After parlaying his father’s connections into a post at Phillips Exeter Academy, he attended Harvard and then served as a Henry Fellow at Cambridge. During World War II, Schlesinger served in the Office of War Information first and later in the Office of Strategic Services (which would in time become the CIA). He met several famous people during this period, including John Kenneth Galbraith, Walt Rostow, Bill Casey, and others. By the time he returned to America from Europe, his second book, The Age of Jackson, had been published which would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize, sell 90,000 copies, and establish Schlesinger’s reputation as an academic.

Schlesinger then moved to Washington, where he hobnobbed with such elites as columnist Joe Alsop and publisher of The Washington Post, Phil Graham. He contributed regularly to The Atlantic, Fortune, and Life magazines, and founded a noted anti-communist group. Then he moved to Harvard to work as a professor, where he continued his anti-communist efforts – which culminated, in 1948, in Vital Center. Schlesinger was hired as a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson in 1952, writing for the candidate in both his 1952 and 1956 presidential bids. Although Stevenson did not win either race, Schlesinger set a new precedent in enlisting several intellectuals in the campaigns. Schlesinger understood that an increasingly well-educated middle class would be receptive to the writings and ideas of intellectuals, especially as distilled through political figureheads. Indeed, the involvement of such intellectuals in the political backgrounds of presidential campaigns become commonplace after Schlesinger’s example.

On the back of Stevenson’s second presidential run, Schlesinger gained his most illustrious post yet: special counsel for John Kennedy Jr. Although, according to Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers, Schlesinger was widely seen within the President Kennedy’s White House as a “special assistant without a special portfolio.” His hazy list of responsibilities included being “a liaison man in charge of keeping Adlai Stevenson happy, [receiving] complaints from the liberals, and [acting] as a sort of household devil’s advocate who would complain about anything in the administration that bothered him.” However, he was apparently well-liked; Robert Kennedy would write warmly of him. Schlesinger later drew upon his three years in the Kennedy administration to write the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Days.

Schlesinger, after his period in the White House, moved back to teaching, eventually working for the Graduate Center at City College in New York. He continued to write, speak, and participate actively in politics, if not from the same lofty position as before. His politics remained, from his point of view at least, consistent across time. A staunch liberal, Schlesinger defined his political stance against what he considered the two viable threats to progressive liberalism: “Conservatism, rule by the business community; and socialism, rule by ideological planners.”

Schlesinger’s A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings is very much a historian’s memoir: it insistently situates the author’s experience in the context of the politics and zeitgeist in which he lived. However, in Schlesinger’s case, this is a particularly apt move, for Schlesinger, to an extent most academics would envy, was much more during his life than a mere chronicler and critic of others’ deeds. Rather, he was in his own right a driving force in America’s intellectual life from nearly the beginning his own innocent beginnings.