When academic reputations collapse, they implode quickly, instantly, irrevocably. It is not a pretty sight.
For some reason, Andrew and I have been reading about Arthur Schlesinger the last couple of nights, probably because Schlesinger’s journals have recently been published posthumously, and we have come across several reviews of them in newspapers, magazines and history journals.
Schlesinger was not an historian, precisely, although he certainly thought of himself as one. He also was not a scholar, nor a thinker, nor a philosopher, nor a writer.
What exactly, then, was Schlesinger?
Andrew calls him “a careerist in search of a career”, a phrase I rather like.
Myself, I think I will identify Schlesinger merely as “a second-rate mind in search of first-rate social contacts”, which is how his reputation, post-1980, may be most accurately described.
What Schlesinger himself wanted to be, most of all, was a celebrity, and he achieved this, even if only in a very small way, although he was ridiculed at least in as many quarters as he was lauded in others.
My first acquaintance with Schlesinger’s work was in a college history course. One of the assigned texts was Schlesinger’s only lasting book, “The Age Of Jackson”, an examination of Jacksonian Democracy in America.
In truth, “The Age Of Jackson” has very little to do with the Jacksonian Era. It is, instead, a rather transparent justification of FDR’s New Deal. As such, it is not particularly original or insightful, and not distinguished in the least, but it is also not particularly offensive.
After my college class was done with the Jacksonian Era, and done with the Schlesinger book, and done with the other texts, and after we had turned in our papers, and moved on to the next subject, I asked my professor why he had assigned us the Schlesinger book.
“Because it is a classic, and everyone must know it” was his very reasonable answer. “But it’s not any good” was my rejoinder, to which he replied “No, it is not any good in the least. But, nevertheless, it must be your job to know it, because everyone else knows it.”
For Schlesinger’s writing, it was all down hill from there, at least in terms of the quality of his work. Admittedly, his writing style remained consistent—flowery, like something borrowed from a 19th-Century women’s magazine—but the thoughts expressed therein were simply variations, in one form or another, of his first book, and these thoughts became weaker and increasingly tiresome—and increasingly incredulous—with age and overuse.
If Tennessee Williams wrote nothing but rewrites of “A Streetcar Named Desired” after that play’s 1947 success, Arthur Schlesinger wrote nothing but rewrites of “The Age Of Jackson” after that book’s 1946 success. In the cases of both writers, success came too early, was never to be repeated, at least on the same dizzying level, and surely prevented them from striking out in new directions.
If Schlesinger had not enjoyed such success with his first book—he won every possible book award before the age of 30—he might have turned into an acceptable academic and historian. However, success must have come too soon for him to handle it well, and he spent the rest of his life seeking limelight and notoriety, always trying to affix himself to one power source or another. With the passing of the years, his grasping nature became increasingly farcical and painful to witness, the subject of harsh scorn.
Schlesinger was not a researcher—he never even attained a Ph.D.—and he was not a satisfactory or even a reliable chronicler. What he was was an opinion-issuer, offering the same bromides and clichés, all derived from the 1940’s, no matter the topic, no matter the issue, no matter the year, beginning in the immediate post-War period and ending only with his death earlier this year. Reading Schlesinger’s books, churned out over a sixty-year period, is akin to having breakfast every morning, for sixty years, sitting across the breakfast table from Eleanor Roosevelt: never-ending polemics, frozen in a time warp, served up by a most unpleasant face.
Thank heaven the old fool is gone at last—and yet remnants of Schlesinger’s career continue to haunt us. Even in death, he has become the idiot who refuses to go away.
It was recently announced that the New York Public Library had purchased Schlesinger’s personal papers—at a cost in the “high six figures, low seven figures”—with, in part, proceeds from the sale to a WalMart heiress of Asher B. Durand’s painting, “Kindred Spirits”. What a deplorable disposition of public assets all the way around!
According to academic librarians, the New York Public Library paid many times the fair market value of Schlesinger’s remaining papers, the most valuable of which have already been promised to Harvard University. In truth, the papers purchased by the New York Public Library may very well have no value at all. Numerous academic libraries took well-publicized passes on the papers while the papers were pedaled around the university universe by the Schlesinger Estate.
Of more importance than Schlesinger’s personal papers, however, is the critical reaction to Schlesinger’s “Journals: 1952-2000”, recently issued to coincide with what would have been Schlesinger’s 90th birthday. What is astonishing is that even the positive reviews have been, perhaps unintentionally, entirely back-handed.
An historian I do not admire, Douglas Brinckley, writing in the Los Angeles Times, offers what is clearly intended to be a favorable review of Schlesinger’s journals—but nonetheless Brinckley leaves anything but a favorable impression of Schlesinger and his work.
“I eat the best meals I can get, drink Jack Daniel’s, smoke Havana cigars and prepare to enjoy life while it is still possible” is supposed to be a charming anecdote, at least until the reader comes across this later revelation: “As late as 1987, in fact, when Schlesinger was a household name, he writes of struggling to survive in the fast-buck Manhattan social whirl where he was often the toast of the town, lamenting that he was ‘perennially broke’ and unable to possess a savings account”.
British reviewer, Professor William Rubinstein, in an obscure British quarterly, in a review that is clearly intended to be highly laudatory, offers the following: “He came of age under Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whom, in effect, he was still voting until he died, seventy years after Roosevelt's New Deal.” Few persons would consider that statement to be a complimentary description of a purportedly serious man.
Rubinstein continues: “After [RFK’s] assassination, Schlesinger's life consisted of Waiting For Godot, of seeking to find yet another new White Knight of American liberalism. Rather pathetically, in his journals he reports hopefully on every successive leading Democratic Presidential candidate down to Al Gore, always expecting great things but always finding only their deficiencies.”
Finally, Rubinstein sums up his subject with this less-than-ringing endorsement—“Schlesinger was certainly a clever man, but perhaps not a wise one”—before concluding his review with the revelation that he always feared asking Schlesinger uncomfortable questions because he needed (and received) a dust jacket endorsement from Schlesinger for his own book, “The Myth Of Rescue”. The principle of “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” is evidently alive and well in academia, flourishing even across vast oceans.
In discussing Schlesinger’s journals, an unexpected source, The New Yorker, is most dismissive of all. Its header, “While Schlesinger Partied, Liberalism Burned” says everything that need be said. It is a damning indictment.
“The political creed that he embodied—modern, post-New Deal liberalism—declined and fell during the period covered by the last six hundred pages of the “Journals,” and Schlesinger never seems to understand why, or even that it is happening at all.
As a consequence, his political judgment—as opposed to his policy views—fails him again and again. In 1972, he couldn’t believe that McGovern would lose to the hated Nixon in a landslide.”
The New Yorker writer continues: “Throughout the years of liberal eclipse, Schlesinger expresses a kind of irritable surprise that events keep taking the wrong turn, that the public refuses to do the obvious, right thing, and that Presidents fail to live up to the Kennedy standard. He worships the Kennedy memory ever more ardently as years go by. He wonders why new generations of politicians don’t turn to him for advice. And he keeps up an incredible social schedule.”
The New Yorker writer was only too willing to address Schlesinger’s deficiencies as a human being—“It’s possible, even if you agree with almost every position Schlesinger held, to find the smugness and complacency not just annoying but fatal”—before ending with a zinger: “Reviewers have suggested that the Schlesinger “Journals” are a sort of cross between the memoirs of George Kennan and the diaries of Andy Warhol. I would add that this combination is part of the sad story they tell, of a political creed in its decadence.” Ouch! It is difficult to find more stinging words than these.
Andrew and I have no intention to buy and read Schlesinger’s “Journals”. If we thought they might somehow be amusing, we very well might do so. However, Schlesinger is a deadly writer, taking himself with deadly seriousness as he utters the most commonplace sentiments in breathless tones meant to suggest eternal significance.
A few years ago, Andrew read Volume I of Schlesinger’s projected two-volume autobiography, “A Life In The 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950”. (Schlesinger did not live to complete Volume II of his autobiography; his “Journals”, therefore, are intended to supplement Volume I of his autobiography.)
Andrew read Volume I of the Schlesinger autobiography one summer while he was home from college. He said that the book had been more or less what he had expected it to be: a memoir whose primary purpose had been the settling of old scores.
Andrew further said that one trait stood out in the autobiography, above all Schlesinger’s other traits: Schlesinger had been indescribably middlebrow. According to Andrew, Schlesinger’s life was surely the most middlebrow life ever lived. Schlesinger was a man with middlebrow intellect, with middlebrow outlooks, with middlebrow attitudes, with fatally middlebrow, if not philistine, tastes.
And yet the man fancied himself to be an intellectual, of all absurd things! Such a person is, by definition, nothing so much as a damn fool.
Arthur Schlesinger . . .careerist . . .polemic . . .middlebrow.
What a ridiculous combination! And what a ridiculous man!