A Life in the Twentieth Century Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his eighty-fourth year, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has published an account of the first generation of his energetic and brilliant career as historian, political activist, and occasional journalist. His memoir assembles an astoundingly large cast of talented mentors and colleagues, public servants, and famous acquaintances. It shows the author moving from success to success with, so far in his life, no disappointments, irresistible obstacles, or personal griefs.

Schlesinger’s paternal grandfather, a German-born Jew, migrated to the United States in 1860 and fell in love with an Austrian-born Catholic woman. They resolved whatever religious dilemmas they had by both becoming Protestant when they married in 1873. His father graduated from Ohio State University in 1910 and then married Elizabeth Bancroft, a remote descendant of George Bancroft, America’s first major historian. Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and went on to teach at Ohio State and then the University of Iowa. There he wrote two books on American cultural history, with the second stressing the discrimination suffered by American women in their quest for freedom and equality—a novel view for a male historian in 1922. The father also anticipated his son’s opinions by demanding recognition for the role of non-Anglo-Saxons in forging the national identity, yet insisting that these immigrants become acculturated to their new nation. Much later, the son was to write a tract, The Disuniting of America (1991), in which he opposed multiculturalism as an ideology dividing America into ethnic communities.

On the eve of his son’s seventh birthday, his father became the beneficiary of a bidding war for his services among the University of Iowa, Columbia, and Harvard; he chose the last and never regretted it. He and his wife socialized in wide academic circles that included the philosopher Ralph Barton Perry, the brilliant jurist Felix Frankfurter, and the irreverent historian and novelist Bernard De Voto.

The son proved a brilliant and precocious student, skipping two grades at the Peabody School, then starring at the Phillips Exeter Academy and winning so many prizes at graduation that the headmaster told him, “You might as well stay up here, Arthur; you’re getting the next one, too.” Since the boy was only fifteen at graduation, his father took him on a world trip and encouraged him to keep a journal; he was to maintain it most of his life. Schlesinger fills fifteen pages with an all-too-detailed report of the journey, demonstrating a self-concern that weaves throughout the book and sometimes taxes the reader’s patience, yet at other times charms, as when he contributes prose paeans to his habits of wearing bow ties and drinking martinis.

Schlesinger devotes two chapters, adding up to eighty pages, to his years as a Harvard student. His chief extracurricular interest was the literary magazine the Harvard Advocate, for which he covered drama, jazz, and politics and helped entertain such celebrated visitors as Gertrude Stein, Sean O’Casey, and Walter Lippmann. The public events of the 1930’s shaped his political outlook for the rest of his life. Like his parents, he became an ardent New Dealer and developed a profound impression of the political stupidity and greed of American business leadership. Unlike many liberals, he was never attracted to the Soviet Union, let alone the American Communist Party. With a good deal of self-indulgence, Schlesinger spends five pages discussing in detail the plays he saw in New York during the 1930’s and another sixteen pages on the films. Of far more interest is his review of his learning. He was fortunate to have two eminent academicians as his tutors: Perry Miller, the nation’s leading authority on American Puritanism, and F. O. Matthiessen, who interpreted closely such poets as T. S. Eliot and Walt Whitman and whose study of mid-nineteenth century American writers, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman(1941), is regarded as an Everest of literary scholarship. Bernard De Voto, however, was Schlesinger’s favorite: a lusty polemicist, generous-hearted, opinionated, a professional Westerner. Schlesinger’s senior thesis was on Orestes Bronson, a neglected early nineteenth century Transcendentalist clergyman, editor, and public official. Perry Miller and his father both encouraged him to turn the honors thesis into a book; it was published in the spring of 1939, when the author was twenty-one.

In his junior year, Schlesinger met the artistic Marian Cannon, daughter of a distinguished physiologist, five years his senior. One of four outspoken, vital, and irreverent sisters, Marian proved an elusive quarry. They fought, parted, and reunited, persisting in an up-and-down relationship...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)