Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: As remembered by Sam Tanenhaus

Historians in the News

[Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the Book Review.]

With the death last week of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., at 89, America lost its last great public historian. The notion may sound strange, given the appetite, as voracious as at any time in recent memory, for serious works of history, and in particular the vogue for lengthy, often massively detailed biographies of the founders and of presidents.

But Mr. Schlesinger performed a different function. He stood at the forefront of a remarkable generation of academic historians. Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970, and C. Vann Woodward, who died in 1999, were its other towering figures. All three, reciprocal admirers, wrote classic works that reanimated the past even as they rummaged in it for clues to understanding, if not solving, the most pressing political questions of the present. As a result, new books by these historians often generated excitement and conveyed an urgency felt not only by other scholars but also by the broader population of informed readers.

“The Vital Center,” which Mr. Schlesinger expanded from an article he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 1948, began with a ringing series of declarative sentences.

“Western man in the middle of the 20th century is tense, uncertain, adrift,” Mr. Schlesinger wrote. “We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk.”...

Why do current historians [David McCullough, Gordon Wood, et al.] seem unable to engage the world as confidently as Mr. Schlesinger did?

One reason may have to do with an obvious but easily overlooked fact about Mr. Schlesinger’s sizable oeuvre. He wrote less often about the past than about the present — or the nearly present. His three-volume opus, “The Age of Roosevelt,” described events that occurred when Mr. Schlesinger was in his teens and 20s. His volumes on the Kennedys — “A Thousand Days,” about President Kennedy, and “Robert Kennedy and His Times” — were more current still, indeed full of news, since Mr. Schlesinger knew and worked intimately with both men....

But in truth Mr. McCullough and others as talented, or nearly so, don’t command the broad cultural authority that Mr. Schlesinger and his contemporaries did. Nor, for that matter, do academic historians like Gordon S. Wood and James M. McPherson, though their books resonate beyond the university.

The problem is not one of seriousness, intelligence or skill. It is rather one of reach. Mr. Wood’s “Radicalism of the American Revolution” is a major contribution to our understanding of its subject, and Mr. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” enthralled readers. But neither work can be said to have affected how many of us think about current issues....
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