I first thought I would title this review “Memoirs of the Imperial Jester.” The jester being one who, though of no importance himself, is always present at the imperial court, I thought I discerned certain parallels between him and the author of A Life in the Twentieth Century. After looking into its pages, however, I saw that I was wrong. A jester should occasionally be amusing, show some shrewd insight, and exercise his special license for candor.

Inevitably, Schlesinger’s memoirs get the big publisher and the big hype. Mr. Schlesinger is “the finest historian of our age,” according to such dust-jacket celebrities as the erudite Mr. Tom Brokaw and the judicious Mr. Norman Mailer. (How would they know?) The same authorities tell us that this fat book, which takes Arthur Junior up to age 53, is “an eloquent and insightful history of the 20th century” and also “a fabulous journey through the first half of the 20th century.” The fact is, Schlesinger is not and never has been an historian but merely a writer of clever political tracts, a press agent for the left wing of the Democratic party (now the only wing). In The Age of Jackson (his Harvard M.A. thesis), with no fear despite insufficient research, he gave us a supposedly definitive interpretation of the most complicated period of U.S. history. In contrast to all previous (and subsequent) understandings of serious historians, Jacksonian democracy, it appeared, was centered in Boston and New York and uncannily resembled the New Deal coalition of progressive intellectuals and labor radicals.

Schlesinger’s blow-by-blow and rather gee-whizzy account of the process of creation herein confirms my longstanding suspicions. The case in The Age of Jackson was made by slim research, artful elaboration of out-of-context quotations, the brushing aside of contrary evidence, and the establishment of plausible but nonexistent connections between various movements. A serious historian would have put forth Schlesinger’s interpretation of the period in a tentative essay to be explored and tested; years of serious research and thought would occupy him before setting forth so sweeping an historical interpretation. As penman for the imperial state, Schlesinger chose to operate differently, and was well rewarded for it. (It is a curious phenomenon that academic historians as a group, while paying lip service to professional standards, give their admiration to the writers who rise above professional standards to achieve celebrity.)

Schlesinger qua “historian” went on to provide us with the definitive middlebrow apologiae for FDR and JFK. Among his other works was The Vital Center (1949), which justified the Cold War liberals in kicking their erstwhile communist allies out of the citadel of power and provided the real starting point for the noisy and pernicious phenomenon of neoconservatism. (And all this accomplished while facing the challenges of a Playboy interview and the Kennedy swimming pool!) Our memoirist’s value as a scholar is conclusively exhibited by his The Imperial Presidency (1973), in which he pointed to the dangerous ambitions of executive power under Nixon while suavely justifying the far worse usurpations of Nixon’s predecessors as necessary and good.

So Schlesinger is not the “finest historian of our age.” But he has known a lot of important people and been in a lot of important places, so surely A Life in the Twentieth Century is an interesting, if not a “fabulous,” look at our times just passed? Would that it were so. Alas, it is hard to believe anyone could plow through these nearly 600 pages of trivia except a New Deal junkie or a collector of celebrity anecdotes. Autobiography at this level of exhaustive but essentially unrevealing detail might be mildlv interesting for a really important historical figure, though I doubt it. For a merely self-important figure, it is an excruciating bore.

Does the world really need to see a picture of stalwart young Arthur busy preparing to interpret history for us all at his preschool desk in Iowa City? Or to savor the boyhood experiences of his father in Xenia, Ohio? (Schlesinger Senior actually was a serious historian of sorts, despite ending up at Harvard.) Do we really need to know faculty-room gossip at Cambridge among historians now, mostly justly, forgotten? One bit of gossip does not appear. It can’t be proved now but was told to me years ago by an honest man who had been a visiting professor at Harvard: Mrs. Schlesinger, Sr., once got up and fled when a black man sat down beside her in a theater. Here we have the true nature of Boston liberalism revealed in all its naked glory.

Young Arthur never lets us forget that his doings were a part of history even before he was born. “Nineteen twelve was the exciting year of Wilson’s New Freedom and of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism.” The events in his life are also historical watersheds: “My formal education now began.” “In September 1931 I traveled forty miles north from Cambridge to boarding school.” “Boredom arose in my third undergraduate year.” “The war was everywhere,” concluded the young warlord at Harvard in 1939. “The war rumbled on” still for our hero as he labored on his first book. “When we wanted sandwiches, we had to use a knife to slice the bread; sliced bread was still in the future.” “That summer of 1935 was the last totally relaxed time,” for it was then the noble Arthur began the literary career that was to make our times comprehensible to all. “The variety was exciting,” he writes of the papers that flowed across his desk in the Office of War Information. And so on.

Is there nothing good to be said at all about A Life in the Twentieth Century? Well, it drops a lot of big and mediumsized names, for those that like that sort of thing. The book’s main virtue, however, is as primary research material for the future historian of the smug, self-aggrandizing Boston/New York intelligentsia which has been a curse to the American people for two centuries and more now. I’ll give that future scholar a working tide for his research: “Pseudo-Intellectualism as a Force in American History.”


[A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin) 557 pp., $28.95]