Has there ever been a more odious “historian” than Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.? Or a more unctuous one?
Thank God his reputation died long before he did, so that he lived to witness the death of his own life’s work. Has anyone ever been more deserving of such a cruel fate?
Tonight Andrew and I read a skewering of Arthur Schlesinger that had both of us on the floor, laughing uncontrollably.
Its wit is so sly that a reader merely skimming the text could easily be forgiven for mistaking it as a tribute to its subject.
It is so polite, so civil, so restrained, so elegiac in tone that one hardly recognizes until the very end that, with every word, the victim has been eviscerated beyond any potential rehabilitation.
I always regretted that we didn’t become friends, because the thousands who succeeded in doing so found friendship with Arthur Schlesinger very rewarding. For one thing, to behold him — listen to him, observe him, read him — was to co-exist with a miracle of sorts. It is an awful pity, as one reflects on it, that nature is given to endowing the wrong men with extraordinary productivity. If you laid out the published works of John Kenneth Galbraith and of Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr., the line of books would reach from Galbraith’s house in Cambridge to Schlesinger’s old house in Cambridge.
A week or two back, Schlesinger acknowledged to someone that he wasn’t quite on a par with his old self, his old self having been just fine until about age 86, three years ago, after which the decline began. He walked more slowly and, he said, his speech was not as fluent as usual.
Any reduction in his productivity must have been shattering to him, as to his many clients, beginning with Clio, the muse of history, which he served so diligently beginning with his first all-star history, The Age of Jackson, and going up to his last book, published a couple of years ago, deploring President Bush for one thing and another.
Schlesinger wrote serious studies, of the age not only of Jackson but also of Roosevelt and of Kennedy, for whom his enthusiasm was uncontainable. Arthur proceeded to write not one but three books on John F. Kennedy, whom he venerated. He lived with the risk entailed in following so uncritically the careers of his favorites. Professor Sidney Hook dismissed one of his Kennedy books as the work of a "court historian." Schlesinger minded the derogation not at all, so much did he cherish public controversy which cast him as maintaining the walls of the fortresses that protected his idols.
He was, I record regretfully, not very deft at close-up political infighting. I say this as the survivor of a half-dozen encounters designed, by Arthur, to kill, which failed. In one of them he hurled a sarcasm, saying of me, “He has a facility for rhetoric which I envy, as well as a wit which I seek clumsily and vainly to emulate.” I thought that so amusing, I copied the words exactly on the jacket of my next book as though they were a great, generous compliment. If you see what I mean about Arthur’s awkwardness in combat of this kind, he actually sued me and my publisher, drawing much attention to his careless use of sarcastic praise, and, of course, to my wit.
But we kept on bumping into each other with less than mortal exchanges, and I had to endure my wife’s huge affection for him, which unhappily did not quite effect a personal rapprochement. He died in New York on February 27, after being struck by a heart attack at dinner in a restaurant, and I think back on the lunch we shared after the funeral of Murray Kempton, and of the sheer jolliness of the great and productive historian when he didn’t feel that his gods were being profaned.
There is no honor payable to an American historian that he did not earn. One of his books got the National Book Award and a Pulitzer. Meanwhile he entertained himself by writing movie criticism, and hordes of others by writing essays on every subject that interested him, including what it is in society that creates history. He was a liberal partisan, but he did not turn a blind eye to transgressions by accommodationist liberals who permitted themselves to follow the Communist Party line. He was devastating in his expulsion of them from his movement, which he served more diligently than perhaps any other human being in modern history
Oh, what I would have given to have written that last line!
It contains far more brevity and wit—and far more accuracy—than anything Schlesinger, in a lifetime far too long and far too prolific, managed to fabricate.