Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. 1917–
(Full name Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr.; born Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger) American historian, essayist, biographer, and memoirist.
The following entry provides an overview of Schlesinger's career through 1991.
Schlesinger is a contemporary American historian known for his encyclopedic knowledge of history, his uniquely perceptive and often controversial analyses of events, and his engaging literary style. His ability to trace the social and cultural influences surrounding historical events has made his writings both compelling to the general public and well regarded among critics. Among his many honors, Schlesinger received the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jackson (1945) in 1946 and A Thousand Days (1965) in 1966.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1917, Schlesinger graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1938. After the publication of his critically acclaimed thesis, Orestes A. Brownson (1939), and The Age of Jackson, Schlesinger, then twenty-eight years old, joined his father as an associate professor in Harvard's history department. A liberal and a Democrat, Schlesinger served as a special assistant to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1966 Schlesinger returned to teaching and joined the staff of City University of New York. He has remained active in a variety of political and historical organizations, including the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The publication of The Age of Jackson in 1945 established Schlesinger as a new and authoritative voice in American history. He not only examined the many social trends that laid the foundation for the Jacksonian era, but also traced their influence on post-Jacksonian history. Schlesinger's advocacy of liberalism and American democratic views was voiced in The Vital Center (1949), a collection of essays arguing against communism and promoting American democratic principles. Following the assassination of President Kennedy, however, Schlesinger incited controversy with his intimate memoir of the workings of the Kennedy White House entitled A Thousand Days. With the escalation of the Vietnam War and the advent of Richard Nixon's presidency, Schlesinger wrote The Bitter Heritage (1967), a critical evaluation of America's Vietnam policy, and The Imperial Presidency (1973), which traced the expansion of presidential power in the twentieth century. In the midst of the Reagan presidency, Schlesinger published The Cycles of American History (1986), a collection of essays exploring the cyclical rise and fall of liberal and conservative leadership in America as well as other issues. Schlesinger's recent The Disuniting of America (1991) criticizes the current emphasis on minority groups and multiculturalism, which he views as threats to the individual rights and liberties that are the basis of constitutional democracy in the United States.
Most critics, like George Dangerfield and Richard Rovere, praise Schlesinger's literary style and his ability to condense and interpret widely disparate pieces of information in a meaningful, accessible way. Jeanne Kirkpatrick and other commentators, however, fault Schlesinger's liberal and political bias as obstacles to a balanced presentation of contemporary historical events. While his interests continue to be directed toward contemporary issues, critics nearly unanimously agree that Schlesinger remains tenaciously devoted to liberalism and to the guiding principles of America's constitutional democracy.
Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress (nonfiction) 1939
The Age of Jackson (nonfiction) 1945
The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (essays) 1949
The General and the President and the Future of American Foreign Policy [with Richard H. Rovere] (nonfiction) 1951
∗The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919–1933 (nonfiction) 1957
∗The Coming of the New Deal (nonfiction) 1959
Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference? (non-fiction) 1960
∗The Politics of Upheaval (nonfiction) 1960
The Politics of Hope (essays) 1963
A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (memoris) 1965
The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941–1966 (essays) 1967
The Crisis of Confidence: Ideas, Power, and Violence in America (essays) 1969
The Imperial Presidency (essays) 1973
Robert Kennedy and His Times (biography) 1978
The Cycles of American History (essays) 1986
The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (essays) 1991
∗These works are collectively referred to as The Age of Roosevelt.
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SOURCE: "The Mystery of a Bronze Head," in America, Vol. LXI, No. 10, June 17, 1939, p. 237.
[In the following review, O'Connor maintains that Schlesinger's Orestes A. Brownson is "the history of [America's] intellectual development, the biography of a mind in its lonely search for truth."]
Two years ago a bronze head, knocked off a pedestal by a group of playful boys and found rolling down Riverside Drive, New York, started zealous reporters searching for someone who knew something about the name "Brownson" on the monument. Only after a hectic day of interviews and research—a sad commentary on American Catholic scholarship—was the search concluded with the knowledge that the original head belonged to Orestes A. Brownson, 1803–1876, philosopher, controversialist and convert to Catholicism. The bronze head brought Brownson back to public attention; Mr. Schlesinger's biography [Orestes A. Brownson] will keep him there.
For Brownson's career was as violent, as astonishing, as unpredictable to the people of his day as his rolling likeness to Riverside Drive residents. At an early age he renounced Presbyterianism for ordination as a Universalist minister. His unorthodox preaching and rebel theology jarred his congregation. Rejected, he fell into agnosticism, rose to announce himself an independent minister. He dabbled in politics, sifted and discarded Transcendentalism,...
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SOURCE: "At the Roots of Democracy," in The New York Times Book Review, September 16, 1945, pp. 1, 26.
[In the following review, Nevins praises Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson for its broad scope, but criticizes it for being "excessively hostile" toward the Whig party.]
When American democracy is most kinetic, when its transitions are most abrupt, and when its ideas take on their most revolutionary hue, then it is best worth studying. The so-called Jacksonian revolution has always made a deep appeal to the American imagination. The tremendous bouleversement which dislodged the old ruling class typified by John Quincy Adams and brought to power an untried aggressive set of leaders with a new backing, was mightily dramatic. Jackson's imperious personality was the most ruggedly picturesque that public life had yet known, and his election opened a series of political battles which shook the country. But the chief reason for our interest in the Jacksonian overturn lies deeper than these considerations. It lies in the fact that it brought up from the depths of American life a set of powerful new forces; it revitalized our politics by the impact of profound impulses from below.
Behind such political forces always lie ideas, and it is remarkable that the ideas of the Jacksonian revolution have waited until now for adequate analysis. Those of the Revolution and Constitution-making...
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SOURCE: "Mr. Schlesinger's Vital Center," in Religion in Life, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Spring, 1950, pp. 205-12.
[In the review below, Ahlstrom contends that the liberal, democratic outlook defined in Schlesinger's The Vital Center is based on a relativistic ethic that denies the fundamental tenets of the democratic system it advocates.]
One of the minor tragedies of the present time is that most descriptions of our crisis have become clichés. It was, therefore, very fortunate that Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., should have written a terse volume on the "politics of freedom." The Vital Center is a statement of "mid-twentieth-century liberalism," an outlook that has been shaped by "the hope of the New Deal, the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man." More explicitly it is a study of the circumstances that now demand a center position between the business-oriented politics of Calvin Coolidge and the politics of the total planner. Of central importance for this program is Mr. Schlesinger's desire to maximize freedom within the limitations of the social needs of an industrial age and to improve the general welfare to the extent that freedom is not endangered. All of these considerations of public policy, however, he relates directly to the concept of Western man adrift in an "age of anxiety." Accordingly, the irrationality and depravity of man, which...
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SOURCE: "The Crisis of the Old Order," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XL, No. 9, March 2, 1957, pp. 11-12.
[Woodward is an American historian, editor, and professor emeritus who has written extensively on the American South. He is the author of several books on American history, including The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) and The Burden of Southern History (1960). His Origins of the New South (1951) won the Bancroft Prize for American History in 1952 and Mary Chestnut's Civil War (1981), which Woodward edited, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In the following review of Schlesinger's The Crisis of the Old Order, Woodward offers a favorable assessment of the book's treatment of fifty years of political and social trends that culminated in the 1933 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency of the United States.]
"This is, I suppose, a bad time to be writing about Franklin Roosevelt," says Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in an apologetic foreword to his The Crisis of the Old Order.
Nonsense! As a matter of fact the Harvard history department, of which Mr. Schlesinger is a member, has for several years devoted a large part of its man-hours to the production of books on FDR and the military and political aspects of his period. Such industry could only have been based on the theory that this is a most excellent time to...
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SOURCE: "The Promise of the Blue Eagle," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 188, No. 5, January 31, 1959, pp. 100-02.
[Dangerfield is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning study The Era of Good Feelings (1953). In the following review, Dangerfield contends that the in-depth analysis of politics and economics in Schlesinger's The Coming of the New Deal is complemented by a "detailed exposition of theory and philosophy being put to work during a highly critical period" of the Roosevelt presidency.]
The exhilarating arrival of the New Deal; its introduction to the public at large of so many able, energetic, controversial, eccentric and brilliant figures; its vitality; the dramatic, visible, audible gallantry of the President himself—all of these are here [in The Coming of the New Deal], as might be expected. Schlesinger's previous books assure the reader in advance that the personalities behind those names once so familiar—Roosevelt, Wallace, Ickes, Johnson, Tugwell, Hopkins, Richberg, Perkins, Morgenthau, Douglas and all—will be brilliantly presented. The author is a master of historical characterization, which is, to be sure, the easiest kind of writing if one has a flair for it; he is also good at narrative, at compressing dense and resisting material into a formal and intelligible sequence, and that is by no means so easy.
Readability is important, literary...
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SOURCE: "New Frontiers," in Commentary, Vol. 36, No. 1, July, 1963, pp. 76-8.
[In the review below, Coser argues that Schlesinger's The Politics of Hope, "attempts to define the lineaments of a new pragmatic liberalism," but that Schlesinger's conclusions are often partisan and do not reflect the "critical and unattached" judgment characteristic of his earlier works.]
This collection of essays [The Politics of Hope], written in the 1950's and early 1960's for a variety of magazines, reflects the amazing catholicity of Mr. Schlesinger's tastes and interests. His range is wide indeed. There are pieces here on the virtues of dissent (written in the age of Eisenhower) and pieces on the need for greatness and heroic leadership (written at the onset of the Kennedy age). Mr. Schlesinger has discussed the Oppenheimer case (in the Atlantic), Whittaker Chambers (in the Saturday Review), and in Esquire he raised the question, "What has unmanned the American man?" Other essays comment on the careers of Walter Lippmann and Reinhold Niebuhr, on the causes of the Civil War, and on numerous other subjects. This variety makes an assessment of the book difficult enough; the difficulty is compounded when one realizes how much Mr. Schlesinger's role on the intellectual scene has changed during the period covered. He used to be a critical and unattached intellectual. He is now attached—to...
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SOURCE: "JFK: A Memoir and More," in The New York Times Book Review, November 28, 1965, pp. 1, 84.
[In the following review, Burns praises Schlesinger's A Thousand Days for its scholarship, its encyclopedic account of events, and "diamond-bright" portraits of White House and Congressional leaders. However, Burns contends that the broad scope of the book prevents any significant indepth analysis of the Kennedy era.]
More than any other people, perhaps, Americans like to leave issues to the "verdict of history." When some problem seems too opaque or some leader too inscrutable, we comfort ourselves with the thought that some day the historians will decide the merits of the case or take the final measure of the man. The trouble is that historians never come in with a final verdict; usually they are a hung jury. History is written by the survivors—but new generations bring new survivors.
The great historian combines the feel and immediacy of the participant with the distance and perspective of the critic who can put events in their broadest context, tap wide sources of data and judgment, and enjoy all the blessings of hindsight. He can accompany the main actors down the rutted, twisting road and feel—as well as record—the bumps and turns. But he can also step back, and, with his fellow historians as his jealous and watchful constituency, he can gain a perspective that sees a...
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SOURCE: "Schlesinger's Kennedy," in The New Republic, Vol. 153, No. 23, December 4, 1965, pp. 21-4.
[In the following review, Blum argues that Schlesinger's A Thousand Days accurately depicts "the spirit and the style of the New Frontier, and its leader," and gives the reader a personal glimpse into the workings of the seat of government.]
For Andrew Jackson, so we learned from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the sun broke through the clouds as he set out for his inauguration; for Franklin Roosevelt, the mist and wind under a sullen sky were witness to the nation's applause for buoyant call to action; for John F. Kennedy, Schlesinger tells us now, "it all began in the cold," as so soon thereafter it was all so tragically to end. In A Thousand Days, Schlesinger, as he did before for Jackson and for Roosevelt, brings his sure knowledge, his lucid prose, and his unmatched gift for understanding the endless adventure of governing men to the analysis of the Administration of a great President. The book, Schlesinger says at the outset, is "not a comprehensive history of the Kennedy Presidency. It is a personal memoir." But the intensity of the author's personal experience with Kennedy does not, in spite of the disclaimer, diminish the range, the quality, and the authority of the history recorded. Schlesinger's is the first account of the Kennedy years to catch and convey the spirit and the style of the...
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SOURCE: "Vietnam Legacy," in The New Republic, Vol. 156, No. 6, February 11, 1967, pp. 25-8.
[In the following excerpt, Schoenbrun examines The Bitter Heritage, focusing on Schlesinger's controversial interpretation of the escalation of the Vietnam War.]
The Bitter Heritage is a bitter-sweet essay that will please few but stir all who read it. Despite some serious flaws, it is by far the best short history and analysis of the war in Vietnam available in book form. It is not, strictly speaking, a book. It totals less than 40,000 words, most of them previously published in three magazine articles. One whole chapter, "On the inscrutability of history," first published in Encounter, is a long, brilliant discursion with minimal relevance to the subject….
Its sweetness is found in its dedication and its last chapter. It is dedicated "for those fighting in Vietnam." (The hawks are by no means the only patriots, the only supporters of our soldiers.) And the last chapter, "Vietnam and American Democracy," is a moving, lucid appeal to reason and the best democratic traditions of responsible dissent, as well as a warning against a recrudescence of McCarthyism in the course of the increasingly bitter national divisions on the war.
The bitterness is there, too, if well concealed by the "cool" style of the sophisticated pamphleteer that Schlesinger has become....
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SOURCE: "Downward the Course of Empire," in The New Yorker, Vol. XLIX, No. 42, December 10, 1973, pp. 190, 193-94, 196.
[Rovere collaborated with Schlesinger on The General and the President and the Future of American Foreign Policy (1951). In the following review, he examines Schlesinger's The Imperial Presidency, commending his thoroughness and commenting on his blatant democratic partisanship.]
No other American institution has held as much fascination for either Americans or foreigners as the Presidency. In its Constitutional and separation-of-powers setting, it is an American invention. Though certain attributes of it have been put to use elsewhere, it is still uniquely American. Perhaps it has already seen its best days, but it has endured and worked well for by far the better part of two centuries. "Not many Presidents have been brilliant," Lord Bryce wrote in 1921. "Some have not risen to the full moral height of the position. But none has been base or unfaithful to his trust, and none has tarnished the honor of the nation." Warren G. Harding became President that year, and if the former British Ambassador had written a bit later he might have added a few words to this judgment. It is doubtful, though, whether the case of Harding would have led to any significant alteration of that judgment. What Bryce wrote a half century ago expressed the opinion of most students of the office...
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SOURCE: "Politics by Other Means," in Saturday Review/World, Vol. 1, No. 15, April 6, 1974, pp. 25-7.
[Kirkpatrick is a former professor of political science and American ambassador to the United Nations. In the following review of The Imperial Presidency, Kirkpatrick finds that Schlesinger's analysis of the expansion of the power of the president of the United States lacks balance and is clouded by his political loyalties.]
We move quickly in America from political conflict to constitutional controversy. The authority and ambiguity of the Constitution encourage recourse to its provisions to strengthen an argument or to prove a point. Since no given division of powers can be proved to be exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind, dissatisfaction with incumbents is readily translated into dissatisfaction with the balance of power among the branches of government. Not only does constitutional debate seem more serious, more elevated, than simple criticism of personalities, but also the constitutional argument can be made to reinforce the case against particular incumbents. Thus, in the Thirties liberals were not content to excoriate the conservative judges who found the New Deal unconstitutional; they also questioned whether the Constitution had really given the Supreme Court the power to review statutes passed by the representatives of the people, and they proposed reforms ranging from...
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SOURCE: A review of Robert Kennedy and His Times, in The New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1978, pp. 7, 54, 56.
[Wills is an American syndicated columnist and the author of books on such widely diverse subjects as Jack Ruby, race relations in America, and G. K. Chesterton. He is probably best known for his incisive political commentaries, especially those contained in his Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of a Self-Made Man (1970) and Confessions of a Conservative (1979). A critic of both the American liberal and conservative establishments, Wills has been described by one critic as "an undogmatic conservative who is ready to let his experiences influence his conclusions" and who is "cheerfully resigned to being a singular conservative, a renegade in the eyes of others who crowd under that rubric." In the following review of Schlesinger's Robert Kennedy and His Times, Wills praises Schlesinger's presentation of the complexities of Robert Kennedy's character and milieu.]
[In Robert Kennedy and His Times] Arthur Schlesinger has a kind of proprietary right to this subject. He was the craftsman of the framework within which Kennedys have been most often studied—the claim that Kennedys mature late; but that the maturity, when it comes, is spectacular. That was the theme of the books appearing just after Robert Kennedy's death. Authors like Jack Newfield, David Halberstam,...
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SOURCE: "Man in the Middle: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Postwar American Liberalism," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 80, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 119-38.
[In the following excerpt, Engelhardt examines Schlesinger's concept of liberalism as it is developed in many of his writings, contending that Schlesinger, by maintaining a centrist position, has tried to value "realism more than idealism." Yet, Engelhardt argues, "by stressing the role of pragmatic intellectuals, he has made a fetish of empiricism … and has identified too closely with the existing power structure."]
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SOURCE: "A Reply," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 80, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 139-42.
[In the following essay, Schlesinger responds to Engelhardt's essay "Man in the Middle: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Postwar American Liberalism" (see above), commenting that Engelhardt "is essentially fair-minded" but misinterprets Schlesinger's positions regarding ideology, the dangers of Communism in the United States, and the role of private property under social control.]
It is a bit disconcerting for an historian to find himself the target of history. But, as we were long ago authoritatively informed, "All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword"; so I accept the occupational risk and thank the South Atlantic Quarterly for the opportunity, before the sword finally falls, to comment on the comment.
Let me say at once that I do not envy anyone the awful task of reading a forty-year flow of words, some historical in purpose, some biographical, some polemical. I think Mr. Engelhardt's piece is essentially fair-minded and often generous, though not always, in my view, quite accurate.
Early on, for example, he credits me with anticipating the alleged belief of the intellectuals of the 1950's "in the exhaustion of political ideology, the pluralistic theory of politics, and the consensus interpretation of United States history." I am unquestionably a pluralist...
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SOURCE: "Conflict and Consensus," in The New Republic, Vol. 195, No. 22, December 1, 1986, pp. 28-31.
[In the following review, Brinkley asserts that the essays collected in Schlesinger's The Cycles of American History are eloquent reminders of the importance of history in forming an understanding of the present.]
It is a tribute to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s immense talents and protean accomplishments that he seems to defy conventional classification. In the course of his 40-year career, he has been a political activist (one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action), a public official (an assistant to President Kennedy), a campaign strategist (for Adlai Stevenson and the Kennedys), a memoirist, a political essayist, and even for a time a film critic. Above all, of course, he has been a historian—perhaps the best known and most widely read American historian of his generation. But even within the historical profession, the unusual range and variety of his work have made him difficult to categorize. His most familiar works are those examining American public life in the 20th century: his magisterial three-volume The Age of Roosevelt (a fourth volume is reportedly in progress), his celebrated studies of John and Robert Kennedy, his analysis of the modern presidency. Yet his first book was a highly regarded study of the 19th-century New England cleric and political activist...
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SOURCE: "The Schlesinger Thesis," in Commentary, Vol. 83, No. 3, March, 1987, pp. 46-52.
[An American literary scholar whose works evidence his conservative principles, Lynn is the general editor of Houghton-Mifflin's "Riverside Literature" series and the author of numerous essays and books on American life and letters. In the following essay, Lynn censures Schlesinger for allowing his political loyalties to bias his historical accounts.]
Once upon a time, the books of the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. were worth reading. In The Vital Center (1949), for instance, he spoke with a fog-cutting scorn of those "progressives" who still clung to the miasmic dreams of the 1930's and were still blind, in consequence, to Soviet imperialism and the malevolence of the American Communist party. The modern liberalism which he represented was much more tough-minded. Thanks to a "restoration of radical nerve," he explained, in words that revealed how much he owed to the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr, modern liberalism recognized the complexity of reality, the ineradicable sinfulness of human nature, the corruptive consequences of power, the narrow possibilities of all historical endeavor, the virtues of gradualism, and the horror inherent in every form of totalitarianism.
Today, having lost his nerve and so much else, Schlesinger speaks of the United States and the Soviet Union in the same...
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SOURCE: "Equal But Separate," in The New Republic, Vol. 205, Nos. 3-4, July 15-22, 1991, pp. 41-3.
[In the following review of Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America, Woodward examines Schlesinger's view that the recent emphasis on ethnic and linguistic separatism will not exhaust the unifying ideal of the American republic.]
The current upsurge of American minorities goes under several names, each designating a different aspect of the movement and varied attitudes toward it: ethnicity, diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism, Afrocentrism, anti-Westernism. All these aspects have found lodgement in the universities, where their most vocal spokesmen are often concentrated and where students provide their most volatile followers. It was natural, therefore, that the current debate and concern should have focused first on academic questions such as who shall be admitted, what they should be taught, and who should teach them. And it is well that this should be so, for higher education is most immediately affected, and the discussion of the effects must continue.
In his brief and brilliant book, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is certainly not unaware of the academic aspects of the problem, and in fact he has a chapter titled "The Battle of the Schools." But Schlesinger is mainly concerned with larger and more lasting implications and their national consequences. The jacket of The Disuniting...
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SOURCE: "Toward Yugoslavia?" in Commentary, Vol. 93, No. 6, June, 1992, pp. 61-3.
[In the following favorable review of Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America, MacDonald discusses Schlesinger's concern that multicultural emphasis in America is both separatist and segregationist in scope and intention.
Originally published by Whittle Direct Books and now reissued with an expanded foreword, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society is an uncompromising look at the fraud of multiculturalism and Afrocentrism. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s eminence as a historian—he currently holds the Albert Schweitzer chair in the humanities at the City University of New York—has not protected him, or his book, from the usual smears. Ishmael Reed, a novelist who teaches English at Berkeley, has denounced Schlesinger as a "follower of David Duke," and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor of English and Afro-American studies at Harvard, has caricatured Schlesinger's arguments as a "demand [for] cultural white-face."
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Brogan, D. W. "General Jackson: Rehabilitation." In his American Themes, pp. 219-26. New York: Harper & Brothers, n. d.
Favorable assessment of Schlesinger's history of Andrew Jackson's presidency.
Brogan, Hugh. "The Uses of American History." In Reviews in American History 15, No. 4 (December 1987): 521-26.
Review of The Cycles of American History in which Brogan praises Schlesinger's ability to present history with humor, balance, and clarity, and lauds his treatment of the themes of liberalism and presidential power.
Commager, Henry Steele. "Two Years That Shaped Our Lives." The New York Times Book Review (4 January 1959): 1, 16.
Favorable review of Schlesinger's The Coming of the New Deal.
――――――. "Should Historians Write Contemporary History?" Saturday Review XLIX, No. 7 (12 February 1966): 18-20, 47.
Questions the appropriateness and accuracy of Schlesinger's White House memoir, A Thousand Days.
Cowan, Paul. "RFK: The Official Version." The Nation (30 September 1978): 316-18, 320.
Contends that Schlesinger's Robert...
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