Arthur Schlesinger’s Missing Vital Center


Ms. Spark, an independent scholar, is the author of Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival.

In his Commentary essay, reprinted in HNN, Norman Podhoretz regrets that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. had, in his unrelenting negative depiction of the Republican party, abandoned the liberalism he espoused in his famous book The Vital Center. The obituary in the Guardian also references the “vital centre,” defining this conception as “a vital centre of accepted societal values” that, combined with “a periodic need for heroic leadership” was linked to Schlesinger Senior’s theory that U.S. history followed “a wave pattern of 11 alternating periods of liberal and conservative dominance.” The question should follow: what did Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. mean by “the vital center?” I have evidence that the late historian  vacillated between two incompatible definitions of that term, but that his thought, taken as a whole, is pessimistic, aristocratic, subjectivist, and hence finally antidemocratic, notwithstanding his apparent concern for urban workers and their contribution to American democratic institutions. In this article, I tackle “the vital centre” along with another theme that permeates many of the Schlesinger obituaries: that historians cannot ever attain objectivity, a claim frequently advanced by postmodernists and other radical historicists/radical subjectivists.

While researching the papers of prominent academic intellectuals during the period of the twentieth-century Melville revival, and its promotion of Moby-Dick, I came across a letter from Schlesinger to Columbia English professor and New Critic Richard Chase, January 24, 1949, written while The Vital Center was in composition, and excerpted in my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. Schlesinger wrote: “I was reading with my usual interest your article on THE CONFIDENCE MAN in the current issue of KENYON REVIEW when I came upon your pleasant reference to me. I was particularly interested by the article because I have just been putting together my thoughts on modern liberalism in a volume which Houghton Mifflin will bring out in the next few months; and in the course of argument I am urging a return to those earlier and profounder representatives of our democratic tradition, such as Hawthorne and Melville…[who] certainly stand up superbly when read in the interesting light of the 20th century.”
Given the favorable reference to Hawthorne and Melville as exemplary democrats, I gathered that “the vital center” was taken from Ishmael’s Epilogue, with that poetic image meant to symbolize Ishmael’s survival of the wreck of the Pequod, primarily because moderate Ishmael had distanced himself from the fanatical Captain Ahab (fanatical as perceived by the character Ishmael in the chapter “The Try-Works”). I received a surprising response from Schlesinger in his letter to me of March 4, 2000, giving me permission to quote him: “I had totally forgotten that Melville wrote about ‘that vital centre’ in the Epilogue! Maybe it lodged in my unconscious, but I think I had Yeats more in mind (‘the centre cannot hold’).” Consider now the remarkable implications of this statement. Yeats’s oft-quoted mystical poem of 1921, “The Second Coming,” warning of the new anarchy brought about by the disintegrating “center,” contains these lines: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity.”

It is hard to imagine a “pragmatic” new model liberal as possessed of any fixed moral conviction, for indeed it was these same “progressives” who had embraced the cultural and moral relativism necessary to their ideology of cultural or ethnopluralism, a policy that can be traced back to the thought of the German theologian Herder in the late eighteenth century, and then revived by such progressives as Randolph Bourne and Horace Kallen in the early twentieth century as an offensive against the rival conception of proletarian internationalism and its allied beliefs in ethical universalism and species-unity--conceptions promoted by Herman Melville throughout his more radical oeuvre. Of course, the assumption of the ethnopluralists was that  social cohesion, not militant cultural nationalism, would be advanced by their upper-class directed policy of mutual appreciation and toleration, and when “multiculturalism” got out of hand (as it did in the rise of the Black Power movement and Afrocentrism), Schlesinger rang the tocsin in his The Disuniting of America, but without examining his own first principles, which were arguably counter-Enlightenment in their utter rejection of objectivity as an achievable goal.
Other ironies should be noted here. It is a stretch to imagine Nathaniel Hawthorne as an inspiring democrat, to be emulated by the new liberals; indeed he mocked Melville’s democratic tendencies in The Blithedale Romance. Moreover, Melville vacillated between aristocratic and democratic impulses, often within the same paragraph.

Heed it well, ye social democrats. Is it not more historically accurate to trace the genealogy of the New Deal to Herder, Burke, Bismarck, and to other conservative reformers, looking to heroic leaders to rescue the masses from themselves?

Melville, who taunted “the moderate men” whenever his radical mood took over, was probably not referring to politics when he described the “vital centre” in connection with Ishmael’s survival. “Vital” is a recurring word in Melville’s writing, and it most likely refers to the Promethean element of his psyche that (following Goethe and Schiller) could bring to life believable representations of humans and the full range of their earthly activities and emotions: such Prometheanism could scare him into organic conservatism of the kind later espoused by the reactionary and protofascist William Butler Yeats. Similarly, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was a vocal representative of the pseudo-liberal generation that had co-opted science and enlightenment, demonizing Prometheus and Faustian “individualism,” hence subtly circumscribing the range of human possibility and amelioration, never more overtly than in the mechanical notion of cycles between liberalism and conservatism, presumably stabilized by common values that are not defined. Such vagueness cannot be found in the democratic tradition as it evolved since the sixteenth century, flowering most notably in the eighteenth-century scientific thought of those liberals who founded the American republic, but the very abstractness of terms such as “progressivism,” “liberalism,” “moderation,” “centrism” and other cant words useful to demagogues renders these emotion-laden categories susceptible to whatever desirable meaning otherwise incompatible social actors wish to project. Indeed, the center cannot hold when constituencies remain divided and at odds, and where intellectuals have failed to specify the irrefragable sources of individual and social conflict.    

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