Commentary Magazine


A Life in the Twentieth Century, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950
by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Houghton Mifflin. 523 pp. $27.00

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s autobiography covers only the first 33 years of his life, but they were a very fall 33 years. A distinguished American historian and the son of another distinguished American historian, Schlesinger, born in 1917, was an intellectual prodigy who published his first book when he was only twenty-two; his classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson (1945) became a bestseller when he was all of twenty-nine. Like many young men of his generation—the generation of the Great Depression and World War II—Schlesinger witnessed much, learned much, and did much in a very short period of time.

As a student, Schlesinger saw Europe in its nervous prewar years. As a young government official, he saw Europe at war. As a young intellectual, he was present at the creation of a new, cold-war America and took part in its earliest personal, political, and ideological struggles—consistently on the liberal anti-Communist side. He worked for and studied under important and interesting men, almost all of them apostles of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. It was in those years that he became FDR’s most avid and perhaps most effective scholarly defender: The Age of Jackson was, by his own admission, the product of his desire to find an American historical tradition in which to place the New Deal reforms. By 1950, when this volume of his memoirs ends, Schlesinger was already well on his way to becoming the liberal historian of our time.

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In the hands of this undeniably gifted writer, such raw materials ought to have made for an illuminating and entertaining story. One is a bit puzzled, therefore, by the degree to which A Life in the Twentieth Century manages to be neither. Schlesinger accomplishes none of the tasks of an autobiographer: he provides no account of his inner life, tells us little about the lives of others, and casts no new light on the events of his time.

What Schlesinger does provide is lists, some of which go on for pages at a stretch. He meticulously records every book he ever read as a child, and every movie and every theatrical performance he ever saw. He also reproduces his report cards, and descriptions of the prizes he won as a young student. For the years when he was a budding intellectual, Schlesinger gives us capsule versions of his books and articles as well as quotations from reviews and other responses public and private. There are excerpts of correspondence with friends both close and casual, rosters of guests at dinner parties, and, taken from the writings of others, descriptions of himself at various phases of his young life. Throughout, Schlesinger drops names of people he has met: in the course of 500 pages, probably well over a thousand of them, many famous and many less so.

To what purpose these endless bits of information have been marshaled is often hard to say. Schlesinger’s stabs at cultural criticism are generally quite banal. Who, he asks at one point, “could forget Edward G. Robinson crying, ‘Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?’ . . . or James Cagney smashing the grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face?” Who, indeed? So common are these Movie Channel highlights that even today’s teenagers know them well. About himself, in the meantime, he is incurious to a fault. When a camp counselor reports of the ten-year old Arthur that he was “liked by boys of all ages” but “emotionally . . . a little high-strung,” Schlesinger’s sole comment is that he “neither especially liked or disliked camp and learned little except swimming and interminable verses of camp-fire songs,” several of which he then proceeds generously to share.

In a foreword, Schlesinger makes it clear that he built up this story from documents, writing as if he did not have access to his own mind and perceptions but could rely only on the written record. (“I have tried in effect to write a biography of myself as if I were writing a biography of someone else.”) But in interpreting his life he takes far fewer liberties than he would as a biographer of anyone else. The result is a rather amazing exercise in the avoidance of self-reflection or introspection.

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Readers are thus left to figure things out for themselves—and it must be said that the pieces Schlesinger has given them do not add up to an especially attractive portrait. Something of a cold fish, Schlesinger writes admiringly but not lovingly of his father, and barely mentions his own children. To read about his friendships, and his romantic interests, is to be struck less by any need to give and receive affection than by the need to know and to be included among the right sort of people, which is to say the Northeastern intellectual, political, and cultural elite.

Indeed, Schlesinger’s compulsive name-dropping intrudes in the strangest places. In dance class, he writes, he “looked with distant admiration at pretty Jane Holcombe, the daughter of Arthur N. Holcombe, the political scientist.” Another young flame was Alfred North Whitehead’s stepdaughter, Sheila Dehn, who (he takes pains to inform us) “later married the historian Myron Gilmore.” In introducing his first great love and first wife, Marian Cannon, he tells us right away that her father was Walter Bradford Cannon, “the distinguished physiologist,” and that her mother was Cornelia James Cannon, “a novelist and all-purpose reformer.” Then, after a one-sentence description of Marian’s own virtues and appearance, we learn not only that her older sister was married to “the Sinologist John K. Fair-bank” but that her mother, “Radcliffe ’99, had attended William James’s classes with Gertrude Stein ’97, who remained a friend.” All in all, one is left with the impression that, for Schlesinger, a woman’s most enticing attributes were her lineage and her connections.

Schlesinger’s youthful brand of New Deal liberalism hardly got in the way of his elitism. As a precocious teenager, he admired H.L. Mencken, whose “air of worldliness and cosmopolitanism . . . along with contempt for the booboisie, made one feel part of a wonderfully sophisticated club.” At preparatory school (Exeter), the young Schlesinger wrote an essay in defense of the “Highbrow,” a “term of envy . . . applied by yokels, 100-percent Americans, Hoover Republicans, and other dull fellows to those whose perceptions were keener than their own.” His father, who had written in a similar spirit about the average American, commented on this essay, “There is always a little thrill one gets from saying things well.”

The eighty-three-year-old Schlesinger offers no retrospective judgment on such early Menckenite effusions. As a matter of politics and theory, the New Deal Democrat detested middle-American “yokels” who voted Republican and favored urban ethnic workers who voted for FDR. But as a matter of personal preference, good family, good breeding, the right tastes, and the right opinions meant more.

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Which raises the delicate and possibly unanswerable question of whether Schlesinger’s eagerness to play his part in America’s white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite was affected in any way by his own mixed lineage. Bernhard Schlesinger, Arthur’s grandfather, was a Jew from East Prussia who emigrated to the United States in 1860, married a Catholic, and then converted to Protestantism. Although (as one amusing anecdote about a forgetful grandmother attests) the young Schlesinger was hardly oblivious to the fact of his ancestry, there are times in reading this memoir when one wonders whether he had actually succeeded in suppressing its implications for his own experience of life or was simply reluctant to think about them.

For example: at age seventeen, he recalls, he traveled to Nazi Germany, where he records having seen a sign reading Juden kein Eintritt (“No Jews allowed”)—but also having written in his diary, “I found Germany very pleasant.” Later on, he raises the issue of whether he and his colleagues working in the research-and-analysis branch of the OSS during World War II should have known that Hitler was carrying out the Final Solution right under their noses; he concludes that, like many government officials and many American Jews, he simply could not believe what the mounting evidence showed.

What is interesting is not this conclusion, which is fair enough, but the bitterness with which the mature Schlesinger now castigates those who in later years insisted that more could have and should have been done on behalf of the European Jews. Abandoning his normally dispassionate tone, Schlesinger lashes out at these “blame-lovers of the 90′s” who “condemned their parents and grandparents for standing aside in the 40′s” and who then “became virulent critics of Franklin D. Roosevelt and accused him of betraying the Jews.” (It is hard to know which of these perfidies—the blaming of parents and grandparents or the maligning of FDR—upsets him the more.)

Nor is this the end of his ire. Some American Jews, Schlesinger charges, have “very likely” kicked up a fuss about the Holocaust for their own narrow purposes, in response to the “decline of anti-Semitism and the rise of intermarriage in the United States.” “One wonders,” he remarks conspiratorially, “why this controversy suddenly exploded so many years after the fact.” One wonders more, however, about what has gotten the historian so worked up.

Anger of this kind rarely appears in Schlesinger’s book. But one can also detect it in his snarling references to American conservatives, then and now. A stolid anti-Communist, Schlesinger nevertheless clearly prefers the leftists and Communists he knew and went to school with to the conservatives he imagined lying out in the American wasteland in the 1930′s and 40′s or those he would later meet in ideological battle in the 1970′s and 80′s. The “yokels” of early-20th-century rural America, he writes, had dug in “for a rearguard stand to save morality, patriotism, Prohibition, white supremacy, and the old-time religion (‘traditional values,’ later generations would say) from the Catholics, radicals, wets, atheists, labor organizers, pacifists, Negroes, and foreigners.” The Ku Klux Klan, he adds, and “the monkey trial in Tennessee (the courtroom filled, Mencken wrote, with ‘gaping primates’), were harbingers of things to come.” From the Klan and the Scopes trial to William J. Bennett: for Schlesinger, the line is unbroken.

Schlesinger would have us believe, in fact, that American conservatives, in the guise of American businessmen, were as much a threat to the nation’s well-being as the Communists who ferreted secrets back to Moscow, for in their greed these businessmen would have destroyed the nation that let them prosper. Only the far-seeing, big-government liberalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt saved us from near-catastrophe then, but for the rest of the century the danger continued unabated. To rescue democracy, the “advocates of the affirmative state had to fight conservatism at every step along the way.”

Schlesinger will no doubt expand on this argument in future volumes, where he will explain how it was the liberals who won the cold war by beating back the likes of Eisenhower, Reagan, and Newt Gingrich. For the purposes of this volume, one can only marvel at the Manichean narrowness of his vision. For a historian who believes that the essence and grandeur of American democracy lie in political conflict, it is remarkable how often Schlesinger feels compelled to attack the very legitimacy of the side he opposes. At one point, “in the interests of full disclosure,” he does record a critical comment about himself by Theodore White, to the effect that in his later years Schlesinger “developed a certainty about affairs, a public tartness of manner associated with the general liberal rigidity of the late 60′s.” In an autobiography so lacking in self-reflection, perhaps that is all the acknowledgment one can ask for.

It is, at any rate, a good deal more than most of his reviewers have asked for. To one of them, a respected historian in his own right, this cut-and-paste volume compares favorably with The Education of Henry Adams, while another, alluding to the fictional masterpieces of Anthony Powell, hailed it as “a historian’s dance to the music of time.” (In his own paean to Schlesinger in the New Republic, the historian Sean Wilentz did at least feel compelled to stipulate that A Life in the Twentieth Century is “oddly lacking in literary merit”)

Such exaggerations are bizarre even by the normal standards of fawning reviews. But undiscriminating accolades by colleagues are no doubt one of the benefits of membership in that “wonderfully sophisticated club” Schlesinger has belonged to all his life.

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