The Hagiography Factory

Thomas Meaney

  • Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian by Richard Aldous
    Norton, 486 pp, £23.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 393 24470 0

For close to half a century, Arthur Schlesinger Jr was perhaps the most recognisable liberal intellectual in America. With his tortoiseshell glasses, bow ties, and neatly stencilled hair, he played for the literary side of Kennedy’s best and brightest, which was meant to balance out the number-crunching prowess of Robert McNamara and the Whiz Kids. In his dozens of books of American history – several of which remain indispensable – Schlesinger was among the chief assemblers of the King James Version of American liberalism. His Cold War manual, The Vital Center, is one of the period’s shrewdest pieces of liberal propaganda. He effectively made the aspirationless politics of the 1950s look like a tough-minded creed that could sustain the faithful through the Cold War. Unlike his kindred spirits in Britain and France – Isaiah Berlin and Raymond Aron were more formidable thinkers – Schlesinger had a particularly intimate relationship with power. But one of the fascinating paradoxes of Richard Aldous’s biography is how slight Schlesinger’s influence in Washington actually was, despite his own pride in it, when compared to his influence on the American reading public, which he counted for nothing. In his later years, Schlesinger was best known as the custodian of the Kennedy myth, tirelessly springing to the defence of his old patron on the sofas of talk shows and in the letters pages of magazines. What makes Aldous’s book of more than incidental interest during the Trump years, though, is the perspective it provides on the current travails of American liberalism.

Schlesinger was born and bred to be a progressive historian. His parents were outspoken activists and feminists. On his mother’s side, Schlesinger was a Mayflower Wasp who claimed descent from George Bancroft, the Michelet of American historical writing. His father was a Midwest-born social historian with a German-Jewish background, for whom the prairie populism of the turn of the century was still an animating inspiration. Arthur Senior and Elizabeth Schlesinger believed in the political necessity of an educated citizenry and a muscular government that could restrain the market. State education was an article of faith. When the family moved from Ohio to Massachusetts for Arthur Senior to take up a professorship at Harvard, it seems to have genuinely pained him to extract Arthur Junior from his state school, where he was performing poorly, and release him into a feeder academy of the New England elite. It is a feat of restraint that Aldous doesn’t psychologise in his account of Arthur’s teenage years. Over the space of a few pages, we learn that young Arthur chose to follow his father to Harvard, where he lived in the dormitory where Senior was a fellow, enrolled in Senior’s classes and legally changed his middle name from Bancroft to Meier so that he could officially be ‘Junior’. Aldous suggests this last decision ‘reflected the balance of power in the family’, where Schlesinger’s mother ‘was always being put down’.

Arthur Senior did not shirk. He got Junior’s undergraduate thesis published by a reputable house in New York, edited the manuscript, oversaw the index and had a colleague review it for the New York Times. When Junior’s second book, The Age of Jackson, appeared a few years later, Senior successfully pressured his friends on the Pulitzer jury to award it the prize. As Aldous points out, Arthur Senior was outdone by Joseph Kennedy Sr, who not only had JFK’s undergraduate thesis published, but then made While England Slept a bestseller by buying up thousands of copies and stashing them in a Boston warehouse. Like Schlesinger Senior, Kennedy Senior also strongarmed the head of the Pulitzer jury into delivering for his son’s second, ghostwritten book, Profiles in Courage.

Junior was only two years ahead of JFK at Harvard, but despite their shared interest in American lore, they barely knew each other. Kennedy was a rank-and-file FDR supporter as an undergraduate, but Arthur Junior was a Popular Front member of the Communist-controlled American Student Union (contrary to what his own sons indicate in their hyper-filial edition of Schlesinger’s letters). During a year abroad at Cambridge, Schlesinger went on to make several friends and acquaintances on the left, including Eric Hobsbawm. His early work focused squarely on class conflict. In his first academic article, written while he was an undergraduate, he presented the New England Transcendentalist Orestes Brownson as a ‘Marxist before Marx’, claiming that any other theory of class conflict was superfluous in a country which already boasted an analyst who ‘interpreted history in terms of the inescapable conflict between those who profited from the existing order and those on whom its burden chiefly fell’. His book on Andrew Jackson tried to explain why he was not simply the champion of white frontiersmen (one reason his portrait is back up in the Trump White House), but, more important, fought on behalf of downtrodden men in the eastern cities against a National Bank that had been captured by the financial elite (another, disingenuous, reason Trump identifies with him). In an early article on the Civil War, with fresh moral clarity courtesy of the Nazi menace, Schlesinger challenged the widespread liberal view of the day that the war had been about states’ rights, and not about slave owners determined to preserve their human capital. Reading the early Schlesinger is a poignant reminder of how permeable the boundaries between liberalism and socialism still were in America in the late 1930s, and how much Schlesinger took that for granted.

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