The story of how the historian in Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was eclipsed by the courtier, the man of intellect by the scholar of the beau monde, has been told before, but never in such richness of detail as Richard Aldous tells it in his first-rate biography, or so pointedly as a parable of the decline of the mid-20th-century clerisy.
Schlesinger was born in 1917 in Columbus, Ohio, but his family moved to Massachusetts in 1924, when he was a child: His father, Arthur Sr., had been summoned to a professorship at Harvard. Young Arthur covered himself with glory at Exeter, Harvard College, and Peterhouse in Cambridge; in 1939 he returned to Harvard to take up a junior fellowship in the Society of Fellows, where he began work on The Age of Jackson, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946.
A smart kid, to be sure, but Aldous detects, too, the influence of a Svengali in the background: Arthur Sr., who managed his son’s early career with much the same adroitness that Joe Kennedy did young Jack’s. Arthur Jr. proved a willing apprentice, accepting the direction of the master as obediently as Trilby O’Ferrall did in the George du Maurier novel. He adopted “his father’s profession,” Aldous writes, and his “rise as a historian came in the field of intellectual and social history — his father’s field.” His first two books “drew heavily on his father’s ideas,” and had “war not intervened, he would have written the Jackson book as a doctoral dissertation under his father’s supervision.” “At moments of extremity,” Aldous observes, “it was always to Schlesinger Sr. that he turned.”
Arthur Jr. had another advantage, distinct from his intellectual gifts and paternal patronage. This was his remarkable ability to render himself obliging to distinguished persons. A catalogue of the rich, famous, or otherwise illustrious to whom he paid court could easily fill a page, but even a cursory list is revealing. Adlai Stevenson, Averell Harriman, Reinhold Niebuhr, McGeorge Bundy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe Alsop, Edmund Wilson, Nicolas Nabokov, Philip Graham, Katharine Graham, George Kennan, John Kenneth Galbraith — all this game he bagged before he even started to work seriously on the Kennedys.
It is only when Arthur comes back from one or another soirée and gets down to laboring in his vocation — the writing of history — that he threatens to become a bore. You will not go many pages in the Schlesinger oeuvre before encountering his idée fixe, that American history is a struggle “between public purpose and private interest,” a thesis, Aldous points out, that he lifted from a 1939 essay by Dad in The Yale Review, “The Tides of National Politics.” It goes something like this: In America there is a class known as “the business community,” composed of country-club duffers and other such self-interested philistines who during certain epochs dominate the nation’s affairs and generally make a hash of things, but they are periodically bested by the avatars of progress and reform, vital spirits who bring about the country’s golden ages, the eras of Jackson, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy.
In between political campaigns and dinner parties, Schlesinger devoted his leisure to the elaboration of his father’s doctrine. The result was less history than what William Leuchtenburg, reviewing one of Schlesinger’s Age of Roosevelt books, called a “morality play,” a “conflict between good (liberal, Democratic) men against bad (conservative, Republican) men.” Schlesinger justified this partisanship by invoking the shades of Thucydides and Macaulay, men who were active in public life and yet wrote historical masterpieces. But he lacked what those historians possessed, the imagination to enter into minds that differed essentially from their own. Thucydides did not write the Peloponnesian War in the conviction that Athens got pretty much everything right; Macaulay, pledged though he was to the Whig school of history, wrote sympathetically of such a Tory as Dr. Johnson. But Schlesinger, for his part, could never really take seriously the mind of a Republican. And just as his “business community” figures are cartoon villains, so his progressive heroes are plaster saints. He never fully comprehended the reactionary elements in a reformer like Woodrow Wilson (one of his “devotees of public purpose”), nor could he appreciate the revolutionary quality of minds such as those of Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan.
It is perhaps, then, to Arthur’s credit that at some point he decided that his métier lay in celebrity activism rather than in more purely intellectual endeavor. To be the amanuensis of Adlai or Jack, to advise Harriman in the Hôtel de Talleyrand, to dally with Marietta Tree or gossip with Isaiah Berlin — all this was a good deal more amusing than burrowing in the stacks of Widener Library, chasing the phantoms of public purpose. But there was a price to be paid. Schlesinger’s mind ceased to develop after about 1955; intellectually he would dine out for the rest of his life on reiterated versions of Dad’s Yale Review essay.
Yet before his creative intelligence entirely ossified, Schlesinger performed useful service as a Cold War liberal, staunchly opposed to Soviet efforts to export the Gulag — an “anti-Communist identity,” Hilton Kramer observed, that he would later seek to exorcise as liberal fashions changed. And he produced, in A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, one of the great insider accounts of a presidency. As history, the book is only a rehash of his earlier studies, with Eisenhower reprising the role of Hoover, Kennedy that of FDR, and it is marred by the author’s special variety of smugness. But as a literary evocation of the mechanics of a modern presidency, an account of how policy is improvised amid a thousand conflicting pressures, it is invaluable, and finds its only rival, perhaps, in the memoirs of Henry Kissinger.
Aldous has done his job well and has produced a biography that invites comparison to Adam Sisman’s life of Hugh Trevor-Roper, published in America under the title “An Honourable Englishman.” Schlesinger and Trevor-Roper were contemporaries; both published classic histories — The Age of Jackson, The Last Days of Hitler — at very young ages; both worked in their respective countries’ secret-service establishments; both resisted the cloister and took an active part in public life; both were familiar through their books and their journalism to a wide public. Yet Schlesinger, perhaps because so much of his personality was subsumed in the talking head, is as a human being less interesting than Trevor-Roper. There is seldom a revelation in Schlesinger’s history like that of Trevor-Roper’s falling in love, as a middle-aged don, with Lady Alexandra Howard-Johnston, or his being found by his stepson, in the midst of the Hitler-diaries fiasco, “lying in the fetal position on a bed in a spare room, his face turned to the wall.” It is true that Schlesinger experienced a sort of nervous crisis after President Kennedy’s death, when his first marriage broke down, but even this failed to bring out the soul-anguish that endows a biographical subject with a fullness approaching that of life.
Trevor-Roper had the advantage, too, of being the more unpredictable character. Once you have absorbed Schlesinger’s essential point of view, very little that he writes can surprise you. While he continued to turn out his pattern-liberalism on a machine, Trevor-Roper constantly startled with his assumption of different masks and personas. Now he is the high-Tory squire, the Christ Church man riding to hounds and complaining, in the post-war austerity, of inferior claret and port in hall; now the satirist of Oxford in the Sixties, writing a crabbed 17th-century prose under the pen name Mercurius Oxoniensis; now the Whig reformer of Peterhouse pitted against the Cowling cabal. The mercury in him made him a better writer and historian.
Schlesinger, with a far less original imagination, became merely an aging wunderkind defined by a rigid and ultimately boring politics, one that had for some time ceased to command the confidence of the nation. Nor did it help that he identified himself so reflexively with the sinking Kennedys. He was charged, by Christopher Lasch among others, with being a kept littérateur, an accusation he did little to discountenance in coming up with such sycophantic fatuities as Chappaquiddick’s being for Teddy “what polio was for FDR,” a catalyst of “self-redemption.” Indeed the only real suggestion, in the later years, that his mind had not entirely lost its capacity for independent thought came in 1991 with the publication of The Disuniting of America, his critique of multiculturalism. But although he deplored contemporary liberalism’s embrace of identity politics, he never became an apostate to liberalism itself; and he died as one who saw the world in terms of CNN’s talking points.
Schlesinger’s descent from scholar-thinker to monotonous sermonizer was yet another sign of the decline of the once-powerful mid-century clerisy associated with such names as Trilling, Niebuhr, Riesman, Hofstadter, Galbraith, Mumford, and Macdonald. They were high priests of the intellect preaching a universal tolerance, yet many (though by no means all) of them were, like Schlesinger himself, so dogmatically contemptuous of other points of view that their extinction might well be thought a blessing. At all events, such a clerisy will not likely exist again: There is too little appetite for its characteristic product, which, being literary and discursive, demanded an attention span somewhat longer than that required by a Facebook post.
Yet a clerisy may perform a useful role even in espousing bad ideas: It stimulates debates that might lead to better ones. (Vide the career of one of Arthur’s sparring partners, William F. Buckley Jr.) Without that stimulus to controversy — without what Norman Podhoretz has called “the serious discussion of serious ideas” — there is the very real possibility that a civilization will lose its mind.
– Mr. Beran is a lawyer and the author of Pathology of the Elites and Murder by Candlelight, among other books.