Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress, 1939
The Age of Jackson, 1945
The Vital Center, 1949
The General and the President and the Future of American Politics, 1951 (with Richard H. Rovere)
The Age of Roosevelt: The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933, 1957
The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal, 1959
The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval, 1960
The Politics of Hope, 1963
A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, 1965
A Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966, 1967
The Crisis of Confidence: Ideas, Power, and Violence in America, 1969
The Imperial Presidency, 1973
Robert Kennedy and His Times, 1978
The Cycles of American History, 1986
The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, 1991
A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950, 2000
Arthur Meier Schlesinger (SHLAY-zihng-ur), Jr., was one of the United States’ premier historians of the twentieth century. His father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., was a major social and cultural historian and a noted Harvard University professor. Schlesinger’s mother, Elizabeth Bancroft, was probably related to the great nineteenth century liberal historian George Bancroft. After graduating from the prestigious Exeter Academy, Schlesinger majored in history and literature at Harvard, and his senior thesis became his first book, published to considerable praise when he was twenty-two as Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress. He married Marian Cannon in 1940. They had three children but divorced in 1970. His second marriage was to Alexandra Emmet in 1971, with whom he had one son.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Because of his father’s prominence as well as his Harvard experience, the young Schlesinger had a wide range of friends and acquaintances, both in the United States and in Europe, drawn from academe, politics, and literature. During World War II he served with the Office of War Information, both in Washington and in Europe, and in the United States Army. Schlesinger’s second book was a revisionist study of Andrew Jackson and Jacksonian democracy, which focused upon Jackson’s eastern urban supporters, as an alternative to the older frontier interpretation of Frederick Jackson Turner. When published, as The Age of Jackson, it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1946, although some criticized Schlesinger, an avowed and active Democrat, of political bias. Uniquely, at twenty-eight and having only a bachelor’s degree, Schlesinger was appointed an associate professor of history at Harvard.
Very much an enthusiastic product and supporter of the New Deal in the 1930’s, Schlesinger turned to that subject for what many consider his major historical work, The Age of Roosevelt. By 1960, three volumes had appeared, with the first volume, The Crisis of the Old Order, being honored with both the Francis Parkman Prize and the Frederic Bancroft Prize. However, his political involvements and commitments frequently intruded upon his historical writing. A strong anticommunist, he criticized political extremism of both right and left in the early years of the Cold War in The Vital Center (a reference to William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”). Along with Eleanor Roosevelt and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Schlesinger was one of the founders of the Americans for Democratic Action in 1947. He served as an adviser and speechwriter in Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns and became a presidential adviser to John F. Kennedy after his election in 1960. Schlesinger’s personal account of the Kennedy years, A Thousand Days, brought him a second Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award in 1966.
Kennedy’s Camelot was followed by Lyndon B. Johnson and the quagmire of Vietnam. In A Bitter Heritage, Schlesinger was strongly critical of the Johnson administration’s Southeast Asia policies, and he supported Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. Shortly afterward, Schlesinger wrote The Crisis of Confidence, a work which reflected the liberal malaise of the late 1960’s, just as his The Politics of Hope, written before the assassination of John Kennedy, exemplified the liberal optimism of the early 1960’s. His influential The Imperial Presidency was a major critique of the excessive presidential powers and their abuses that led to Vietnam, and his Robert Kennedy and His Times was an idealistic counterpoint–some reviewers said too idealistic–to the policies of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
Schlesinger found little to praise in the presidency of the conservative Ronald Reagan, ironically a one-time New Deal liberal whose popularity became as great as that of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some reviewers claimed Schlesinger’s The Cycles of American History, published after Reagan’s reelection, was merely a reflection of Schlesinger’s antipathy to the politics of the day, but he, and his father before him, had long been interested in the cycles of political and social change in American history.
One of Schlesinger’s most controversial works was The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. His New Deal liberalism was antipathetic to the liberalism of the so-called New Left, which emerged from the social and political conflicts of the 1960’s. The New Left’s tendency to interpret the United States’ past and present not as a whole but as a collection of too self-conscious and often competing groups disturbed Schlesinger, and his attack on certain aspects of political correctness allied him on that issue with many conservatives. However, he had long been an advocate of the broad center, as illustrated by the earlier The Vital Center.
Not returning to Harvard after his Kennedy years, Schlesinger became a Schweitzer professor at the City University of New York, from which he retired in 1995. In his early eighties he published his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century, which gracefully related the events of his life to 1950. Comparisons were made to Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams (1907), but Schlesinger’s was the story of a politically engaged public intellectual, as opposed to Adams’s introspective outsider, observing a world with which he felt little relationship. Late in his career, Schlesinger commented that in retrospect perhaps he should have spent more time writing history: His The Age of Roosevelt volumes ended with the election of 1936. Nevertheless, his political involvements and his historical perspectives made Schlesinger the most influential historian of his generation.