REVIEWSrnThe Banalityrnof Banalrnby Clyde WilsonrnA Life in the Twentieth Century:rnInnocent Beginnings, 1917-1950rnby Arthur M. Schlesinger, ]r.rnBoston/New York: Houghton Mifflin;rn557 pp., $28.95rnIfirst thought I would title this reviewrn”Memoirs of the hnperial Jester.” Thernjester being one who, though of no importancernhimself, is always present at thernimperial court, I thought I discerned certainrnparallels between him and the authorrnof A Life in the Twentieth Century.rnAfter looking into its pages, however, Irnsaw that I was wrong. A jester should occasionallyrnbe amusing, show somernshrewd insight, and exercise his special licensernfor candor.rnhievitably, Schlesinger’s memoirs getrnthe big publisher and the big hype. Mr.rnSchlesinger is “the finest historian of ourrnage,” according to such dust-jacketrncelebrities as the erudite Mr. TomrnBrokaw and the judicious Mr. NormanrnMailer. (How would they know?) Thernsame authorities tell us that this fat book,rnwhich takes Arthur Junior up to age 53, isrn”an eloquent and insightful iiistory of thern20th century” and also “a fabulous journeyrnthrough the first half of the 20th century.”rnThe fact is, Schlesinger is not andrnnever has been an historian but merely arnwriter of clever political tracts, a pressrnagent for the left wing of the Democraticrnparty (now the only wing), hi The Age ofrnJackson (his Harvard M.A. thesis), withrnno fear despite insufficient research, herngave us a supposedly definitive interpretationrnof the most complicated period ofrnU.S. history. In contrast to all previousrn(and subsequent) understandings of seriousrnhistorians, Jacksonian democracy, itrnappeared, was centered in Boston andrnNew York and uncannily resembled thernNew Deal coalition of progressive intellectualsrnand labor radicals.rnSchlesinger’s blow-by-blow and ratherrngee-whizzy account of the process of creationrnherein confirms my longstandingrnsuspicions. The case in The Age of jacksonrnwas made by slim research, artfulrnelaboration of out-of-context quotations,rnthe brushing aside of contrary evidence,rnand the establishment of plausible butrnnonexistent connections between variousrnmovements. A serious historian wouldrnhave put forth Schlesinger’s interpretafionrnof the period in a tentative essa to bernexplored and tested; years of serious researchrnand thought would occupy himrnbefore setting forth so sweeping an historicalrninterpretation. As penman for thernimperial state, Schlesinger chose to operaterndifferently, and was well rewarded forrnit. (It is a curious phenomenon that academicrnhistorians as a group, while pa)ingrnlip service to professional standards, giverntheir admiration to the writers who risernabove professional standards to achieverncelebrity.)rnSchlesinger qua “historian” went onrnto provide us with the definitive middlebrowrnapologiae for FDR and JP’K. /mongrnhis other works was The Vital Centerrn(1949), which justified the Cold War liberalsrnin kicking their erstwhile communistrnallies out of the citadel of power andrnprovided the real starting point for thernnoisy and pernicious phenomenon ofrnneoconservatism. (And all this accomplishedrnwhile facing the challenges of arnPlayboy interview and the Kennedyrnswimming pool!) Our memoirist’s valuernas a scholar is conclusively exhibited byrnhis The Imperial Presidency (1973), inrnwhich he pointed to the dangerous ambitionsrnof executive power under Nixonrnwhile suavely justifying the far worsernusurpations of Nixon’s predecessors asrnnecessary and good.rnSo Schlesinger is not the “finest historianrnof our age.” But he has known a lotrnof important people and been in a lot ofrnimportant places, so surely A Life inrnthe Twentieth Century is an interesting,rnif not a “fabulous,” look at our timesrnjust passed? Would that it were so. Alas,rnit is hard to believe anyone could plowrnthrough these nearly 600 pages of triviarnexcept a New Deal junkie or a collectorrnof celebrit)’ anecdotes. Autobiography atrnthis level of exhaustive but essentially unrevealingrndetail might be mildlv interestingrnfor a really important historical figure,rnthough I doubt it. For a merely self-importantrnfigure, it is an excruciating bore.rnDoes the world really need to see a picturernof stalwart young Arthur busy preparingrnto interpret history for us all at hisrnpreschool desk in Iowa Cit)? Or to savorrnthe boyhood experiences of his father inrnXenia, Ohio? (Schlesinger Senior actuallyrnwas a serious historian of sorts, despiternending up at Harvard.) Do wernreally need to know facult’-room gossiprnat Cambridge among historians now,rnmostly justly, forgotten? One bit of gossiprndoes not appear. It can’t be proved nowrnbut was told to me years ago by an honestrnman who had been a visiting professor atrnHarvard: Mrs. Schlesinger, Sr., once gotrnup and fled when a black man sat downrnbeside her in a theater. Here we have therntrue nature of Boston liberalism revealedrnin all its naked glory.rnYoung Arthur never lets us forget thatrnhis doings were a part of history even beforernhe v^as born. “Nineteen twelve wasrnthe exciting year of Wilson’s New Freedomrnand of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism.”rnThe events in his life are also historicalrnwatersheds: “My formal educationrnnow began.” “In September 1931 I traveledrnforti,’ miles north from Cambridge tornboarding school.” “Boredom arose in myrnthird undergraduate year.” “The war vasrneverywhere,” concluded the young warlordrnat Harvard in 1939. “The war rumbledrnon” still for our hero as he laboredrnon his first book. “When we wantedrnsandwiches, we had to use a knife to slicernthe bread; sliced bread was still in the future.”rn”That summer of 1935 was the lastrntotally relaxed time,” for it was then thernnoble Arthur began the literary careerrnthat was to make our times comprehensiblernto all. “The variety was exciting,” hernwrites of the papers that flowed across hisrndesk in the Office of War Information.rnAnd so on.rnIs there nothing good to be said at allrnabout A Life in the Twentieth Century?rnWell, it drops a lot of big and mediumsizedrnnames, for those that like that sort ofrnthing. The book’s main virtue, however,rnis as primary research material for thernfuture historian of the smug, self-aggrandizingrnBoston/New York intelligentsiarnwhich has been a curse to the Americanrnpeople for two centuries and more now.rnI’ll give that future scholar a working tidern32/CHRONICLESrnrnrn