Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.