Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Essay - Critical Essays

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr.

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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.

Criticism

Paul L. O'Connor (review date 17 June 1939)

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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Allan Nevins (review date 16 September 1945)

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 periods, for example, have long ago been sifted and examined. One reason for the delay is that the rough and tumble of Jacksonian days has tended to obscure the role of ideas. Another is that the energies behind the overturn came from a rough Western population and an inarticulate body of Eastern workingmen, both long supposed to be strong in emotions but weak in reasons.

In due time, however, the whole range of Jacksonian doctrine, and its relationship with antecedent Jeffersonian theories and subsequent Wilsonian and Rooseveltian thought, was certain to receive attention. A long list of recent writers—Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks, Abernethy, Curti, Gilbert H. Barnes, Carl Swisher, Turner, Charles Warren—have dealt with various facets of the thought of the time, and they have proved that it was much more important than old style historians supposed.

The old conventional explanation of Jackson's rise to power was simple. "A mob of malcontents," as John W. Burgess put it, got together, gave a strong pull, and brought the old order toppling in ruins. This mob represented a combination of South and West against the propertied, conservative East; but the group also held control of two Eastern States—New York, where the wily Van Buren had gained power, and Pennsylvania, where Jackson's martial feats had given him immense popularity.

The revolution, according to stock explanations, emphasized frontier "individualism" and Western "egalitarianism." In its inception it was purely political, a revolt against the old monopoly of office holding by the rich, the well-born, and the well-educated.

When the mob filled Washington in 1829 to roar applause of the old hero and romp through the White House, there was little indication that the change would sharply modify economic policies and social structures. The fact that it did, according to the old view, was largely an accident. It resulted from the personal conflicts, Jackson vs. Clay and Biddle, which precipitated the war against the Bank of the United States.

Mr. Schlesinger's service, performed not merely adequately but brilliantly [in his The Age of Jackson], is to reinterpret Jacksonian democracy in the light of an immense body of facts which had previously been ignored. Examining the politics of the era not in terms of "party battles" but of animating ideas, he makes the period far more richly instructive. The whole force of the Jacksonian movement takes a new orientation. Mr. Schlesinger argues that it stemmed more largely from the Eastern working man than the Western settler; that it was more intimately connected with the Industrial Revolution than with the trans-Appalachian frontier. Jackson, as he puts it, struck fire with the working classes because he seemed to them the embodiment of...

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Sydney E. Ahlstrom (review date Spring 1950)

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,"...

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C. Vann Woodward (review date 2 March 1957)

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...

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George Dangerfield (review date 31 January 1959)

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...

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Lewis A. Coser (review date July 1963)

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...

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James MacGregor Burns (review date 28 November 1965)

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...

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John M. Blum (review date 4 December 1965)

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...

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David Schoenbrun (review date 11 February 1967)

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...

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Richard H. Rovere (review date 10 December 1973)

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,...

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Jeanne Kirkpatrick (review date 6 April 1974)

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...

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Garry Wills (review date 12 November 1978)

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...

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Carroll Engelhardt (essay date Spring 1981)

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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Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (essay date Spring 1981)

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...

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Alan Brinkley (review date 1 December 1986)

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...

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Kenneth S. Lynn (review date March 1987)

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...

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C. Vann Woodward (review date 15-22 July 1991)

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...

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Heather MacDonald (review date June 1992)

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...

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