Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: The Public's Historian

Historians in the News

I met Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once, about 10 years ago, at his apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. I knocked on the door and Schlesinger opened it, dressed simply in a shirt and slacks.

"Dr. Schlesinger, you're not wearing your bow tie!" I exclaimed.

Schlesinger laughed. The tie was a central part of this great historian's public persona: On television or in the newspaper, he never appeared without it. Look at any obituary for Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who died of a heart attack Wednesday, and you'll probably see his bow tie.

To many people, I suspect, the tie marked Schlesinger as the classic bumbling professor: kind and avuncular, to be sure, but also isolated and irrelevant. But it symbolized exactly the opposite. Whereas most academic historians today write only for each other, Schlesinger pitched his work at lay readers. That's why the public recognized him, bow tie and all.

Schlesinger's death, at age 89, also marks the passing of a certain kind of publicly oriented historian. Once upon a time, the leading members of our guild wrote books for general readers. But all of that has changed in the past three decades, with disastrous consequences for our profession--and, I think, for the public as well.

Schlesinger imbibed his public spirit from his father, a distinguished historian in his own right who produced books for the general citizenry. So did mid-century scholars like Henry Steele Commager and Richard Hofstadter, author of best-selling paperbacks about America's political culture and leadership.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. joined this tradition in his late 20s with his first Pulitzer Prize winner,"The Age of Jackson," which won accolades from specialists and lay readers alike. Schlesinger's next Pulitzer came 20 years later for"A Thousand Days," his insider's look at the brief presidency of John F. Kennedy. In 1966, it became the fifth best-selling book in the United States.

By the 1970s, however, most professional historians had stopped writing for a general audience. As the academic job market dried up, younger scholars were afraid to take big chances with broad themes. Better to produce a narrow case study, which might appeal to a like-minded historian on a hiring committee.

Most of this work fell into the category of"social history," focusing especially on laborers, women, immigrants and racial minorities. Often brilliant and insightful, this scholarship typically lacked a narrative structure--that is, a story--that lay readers could recognize or enjoy. For the most part, then, they ignored it. So American readers turned to a new generation of so-called amateur- and journalist-historians like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who continued to produce vast, sprawling narratives about great men (or, less often, great women). So did Ken Burns and other documentary filmmakers, crowding public and cable television with a prodigious array of historical offerings.

Most professional historians turn up their noses at this type of popular history, if they notice it at all. Indeed, they sneer at the handful of fellow academics--like Arthur Schlesinger Jr.--who have managed to find a general audience for their work. These poor souls are dismissed as mere"popularizers," which tells you all you need to know.

If you can engage the lay reader, you can't be much of a thinker. To be fair, much of popular history is shallow, superficial and blandly patriotic. Schlesinger's book on Kennedy, especially, came under fire for its glowing portrait of the so-called Camelot Era. But he also produced sharp critiques of White House power, especially in his final book,"War and the American Presidency." Calling the war in Iraq a"ghastly mess," Schlesinger condemned President Bush for curbing domestic civil liberties.

And that broadside, in turn, led Bush loyalists to slough off Schlesinger as a Democratic lackey. But as Schlesinger learned from his own father, the price of public engagement was a certain amount of public criticism.

That's what drew me to Schlesinger's door in the first place. Researching popular controversies over history, I discovered that Arthur Schlesinger Sr. had come under attack in the 1920s for allegedly demeaning the founding fathers. One mob in Chicago burned his books; and a teacher suggested that he"should be filling a cell in a federal prison."

I couldn't find much else about the controversy, so I contacted Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Graciously, he offered to let me look at his family's personal papers. And when I mentioned my interest in the Chicago episode, he smiled.

"Ah, book burning," he mused."As American as apple pie."

Lest I get the wrong idea, however, Schlesinger went on to insist that all historians should write for the general public. He said some readers won't like what we say, but at least they'll sit up and take notice."Give it your best shot," he said,"and let the chips fall where they may." Sadly, as Schlesinger's death reminds us, that's not a chance that too many other historians are willing to take.

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