What Makes Arthur Tick?

A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Houghton Mifflin, 557 pages, $28.95.

I first met Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., 54 years ago at the founding convention of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in Washington, D.C. I was dazzled by the array of notables in attendance--from Eleanor Roosevelt to the young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey--and even in that goodly company no one could doubt that Schlesinger, barely 29, was regarded as one of the elite.

To a degree, that did not strike me as surprising. Among my fellow graduate students at Columbia, he was an awesome figure. While we were struggling to pass our Ph.D. oral exams, he had already written two books. Little, Brown had published his Harvard senior thesis on the nineteenth-century thinker and activist Orestes Brownson in 1939, when Schlesinger was only 21; and in The New York Times Book Review, my mentor at Columbia, Henry Steele Commager, had pronounced it "masterly." Well over a year before the birth of ADA, Schlesinger had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his magisterial Age of Jackson--deservedly so, because to this day writing on the Andrew Jackson era reverberates to the tremors he set off. I recall one afternoon in 1946 overhearing a grizzled bookseller on Fourth Avenue saying to another, "How do you figure this business? A book on Jackson a best-seller!" In fact it was on the best-seller list for 25 weeks.

Nevertheless, upon meeting Schlesinger, I was perplexed. How, I wondered, had he achieved such political eminence at so early an age? What was it that sparked his liberalism? How had he gained recognition as a public intellectual? And above all, what was he really like? When we spoke, he had been altogether pleasant, indeed helpful, to someone he did not know. But who was he beyond the impressive persona?

In subsequent years, I have gotten to know him reasonably well. We have been friends, though not intimates, for more than half a century. I took time off from graduate school to work in the national office of ADA, and I remember sitting next to him at board meetings. When the need for a resolution arose, the liberal elders instinctively turned to him, and in an astonishingly short time he produced several flawless paragraphs. For a year, we were colleagues at Harvard before I moved on to Columbia. In later years, we both wrote about Franklin D. Roosevelt. And to this day, we share a conviction about the enduring relevance of New Deal liberalism as well as skepticism about political correctness.

I can't say, though, that these experiences have put me much further along toward knowing the answers to the questions raised in my mind in 1947, and hence I approached A Life in the Twentieth Century with no little interest. The first volume of a projected pair, Innocent Beginnings carries Schlesinger from his birth in 1917-- in Ohio, where his father was a professor of history and an outspoken liberal at Ohio State--to 1950. It offers ample opportunity for self-revelation.

In truth, though, Innocent Beginnings does not reveal much about Arthur as a person. At Phillips Exeter Academy, he writes, "I was two years younger than the rest of my class, shy, stammering, bespectacled and with a case of acne that, if not so disfiguring as the psoriasis that John Updike recalls so feelingly from his own boyhood, still was demoralizing, especially when I was in the company of girls." But that is a rare glimpse. Only once is the reader permitted to see him carrying on research. To explore the Brownson papers at Notre Dame in the hot summer of 1938, he stayed in South Bend at "an old-fashioned drummers' hotel with ghastly rubber plants in the lobby and an icewater tap in the bathroom." His marriage gets two sentences, his honeymoon one; then he is off and running on an account of another famous couple he knows, in a paragraph replete with references to James Bond and Walter Lippmann.

His reticence is deliberate. He even keeps the reader at a distance by saying not "I" but "one" ("one felt in the end," "one cherished," "one got around"). Perhaps he has an aversion to navel-baring reminiscences. Well and good. Or perhaps he recalls his upbringing as singularly free of trauma. His parents come across as wise, caring, and sensible--which, in light of my acquaintance with them, is credible. Still, one wonders how he established his own identity in the same hothouse community in the very same field as his famous father, even bearing his father's name, save for the appendage. I still can hear the acid intonation of his leftish critics in Cambridge who called him not "Arthur" or "Schlesinger" but "Junior."

I wish he had opened up more here, because I don't think he does himself full justice. Books seem to appear effortlessly from his brow, when in fact they are the result of years of dedication: tedious hours spent visiting archives, roaming library stacks, sorting through note cards, and pounding the typewriter. A reader could easily get the impression that his life is altogether glamorous, even self-centered, as he flits from Parisian cafés to Washington salons. I remember him differently. In the months when I was state director of Massachusetts Americans for Democratic Action in 1948 and 1949, I saw him traveling selflessly from chapter to chapter of ADA as far west in the state as Northampton, giving of himself on time-devouring missions to bolster the liberal cause.

We don't learn much more about how he came to be so committed a liberal, beyond the influence of his parents and his absorption in the zeitgeist of the 1930s. He does say that at Exeter he rooted for FDR in 1932. (His parents, staunch believers in public schools, had sent him there after hearing that his public-school civics teacher had informed the class that the inhabitants of Albania were called Albinos and had white hair and pink eyes.) Yet curiously, almost every reference to Roosevelt is negative. "I think his recent pronouncements on foreign policy are very misguided, even dangerous," he writes to his family early in 1939. "He seems to have delusions of Wilsonian grandeur." During World War II, Schlesinger complains to his parents "of Roosevelt's retreat all along the line" on issues of concern to liberals. There is no transfiguring moment when for the first time Schlesinger recognizes the great divide between the hardship of the Irish in South Boston tenements and his own more favored upbringing, no quiver of excitement about New Deal experiments such as the Tennessee Valley Authority or the federal arts projects, no impulse to sign up with the Harvard Liberal Union.

He is better at exploring the sources of his anticommunist zeal. He writes that as early as 1929 he relished weekly installments of a serialized anti-Soviet novel in Liberty magazine, indicating "a predisposition to distrust Communism that must have come from my parents," who were "sturdy liberals" hostile to totalitarianism and contemptuous of the Communist Party in America. As a Harvard undergraduate, he was irritated by the "slavish defense of everything Stalin did" that he heard from certain covert party members and fellow travelers on the faculty. By his mid-twenties, Schlesinger was, he claims--not at all unreasonably--"a veteran anti-Stalinist," who in Washington during World War II became a member of "what might be called an anticommunist cell." In 1944, as deputy for military intelligence in Paris, he writes to his parents: "It is absolutely essential to give the Commies no quarter... . I cannot say too strongly how I feel about this." Little wonder that the founders of the liberal, anticommunist ADA in 1947 had total confidence in him.

The best part of the book is Schlesinger's elucidation of how he came to be the most conspicuous public intellectual of his generation. He was so well connected, partly because he was his father's son, that as early as 1939, during a graduate fellowship at Cambridge University, he became the inadvertent agent for transmitting President Roosevelt's views on appeasement to Lord Halifax. By 1941 he was already prominent enough to be summoned to a conference of liberals organized by figures of the stature of Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Reuther. In 1942 he secured a position in the Office of War Information (OWI) in Washington, where he occasionally ghostwrote speeches for the president, though not ones of major importance; and he later joined in a dramatic resignation from the OWI to protest the capture of the agency by businessmen. He moved on to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, and for the rest of the war edited intelligence reports in London and Paris, all the while continuing to draft The Age of Jackson.

Schlesinger emerges from his book less as a professor with political interests than as a freelance intellectual with a campus site. "How I envied the New Dealers with all their opportunities and responsibilities!" he writes. A faculty brat, he finds the academic universe barely tolerable. It was "depressing," he tells his parents when he begins work with the OSS, "to be in the middle of a lot of Ph.D.'s once again." (Schlesinger, as a member of Harvard's Society of Fellows, was able to elude the Ph.D. millrace.) Some time after, the sight of scholarly journals in the OWI library in London afflicts him with a "kind of horror." "It is so hard," he says, "to imagine returning to any of this truck." When I taught at Harvard, his course on intellectual history had the largest registration in the department, but I never sensed that he and the Cambridge community were a love match, and I was not surprised when in later years he chose to settle in Manhattan.

Schlesinger's memoir conveys the impression that he knows every mover and shaker in politics and belles lettres. As a student, he corresponds with a family friend, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter; and in 1940 he accompanies another family friend, Bernard De Voto, on a tour of the West, at the wheel of "Benny's" Buick. Theologian Niebuhr is "Reinie"; novelist McCarthy, "Mary"; British theorist Laski, "Harold." In Washington after the war, he is befriended by three of the nation's top journalists--Joe Alsop, Walter Lippmann, and Scotty Reston--and breezes through Georgetown parties with figures such as Averell Harriman. When he buys a house in Cambridge, his neighbors are J. Kenneth Galbraith, Julia Child, and William James's son.

He is equally at home in the world of popular culture. So movie-mad is Schlesinger, like many of his generation, that he (and his wife) name their daughter Christina after a character played by Greta Garbo. In London, Leslie Howard's son gets him center-court tickets at Wimbledon, and Schlesinger squires the film beauty Constance Cummings to lunch. He writes, "I was delighted many years later when Laurence Olivier ... told me ... ," and four pages further on, "Years later, over dinner on Martha's Vineyard, I asked James Cagney... ."

The parade of the famous and clever does not always pay out, but most of the time it does, and richly. When we are told that although he never met Harold Ickes, he did become "friendly with Jane Ickes, his widow, in the Seventies and with his son Harold in the Nineties," we know we have hit a dry well. More often, though, Schlesinger's characterizations are brilliant. James Forrestal, the Cold War secretary of defense who took his life, "was a highly wound-up Wall Streeter with clenched jaw and mistrustful eyes who ... was forever yearning for a green light at the end of some dock." Recalling a lunch with Henry Luce, who famously said he employed liberals because "for some goddamn reason Republicans can't write," Schlesinger notes: "Luce's speech was sometimes halting and stammering, and his editors, fluent of voice on all other occasions, would suddenly begin to halt and stammer too." The acerbic British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, "whose talent for making friends was exceeded only (as I one day discovered) by his talent for breaking with them, ... was so much at ease with cynicism that one only discovered much later that it masked a hunger for spiritual certitudes."

Here is Schlesinger on Earl Browder, the fallen head of the American Communist Party:

Browder looked at first glance like the average suburban commuter--nondescript grayish tropical worsted suit, matching gray tie, white shirt, white socks, new brown shoes. Iron gray hair and mustache gave him an air of old-fashioned respectability. The benign exterior was marred by a pair of shifty eyes and a trick of twisting a match packet in his left hand when questions were too direct. At such times there was a hesitancy in replying, each word carefully planned and followed by a crafty smile. His face had an overcrowded look--not enough room between forehead and chin for eyes and nose.

He is no less acute on Henry Morgenthau, Phil Graham, and Adlai Stevenson.

Schlesinger's reprise of early articles makes us realize how fine a journalist and essayist he was half a century ago. Especially stimulating is his distinction between the Fair Deal and the New Deal. Contrary to most commentators, he sees Harry Truman's program as "programmatically ... more radical" than FDR's. Temperamentally, though, it was more conservative.

New Dealers were typically people extruded from American life, too highly charged for the towns that produced them and to which so few of them ever returned. Fair Dealers seemed to spring straight from the common life of the country. Most could sink back into it without leaving a ripple on the surface. With their pink cheeks and bland, unlined faces, their healthy, handsome daughters and their warm family lives, their affable extroversions and their boisterous practical jokes, they were part of the American landscape.

In another essay, Schlesinger offers a fair-minded but not uncritical appraisal of Eleanor Roosevelt, a liberal icon who, he recognizes, deserves deep regard but not beatification.

Readers of Innocent Beginnings will look forward to the memoir's second volume, which will give Schlesinger considerably wider scope for his talents. That book will take him through his landmark FDR trilogy, into the Kennedy White House, and on to his study of Jack Kennedy's presidency, A Thousand Days; his biography of Robert Kennedy; his years at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; and his warfare with the multiculturalists. There will undoubtedly be a cornucopia of reminiscences of the sort that distinguish the first volume. But the book will be even better if we see him more of the time with the bow tie off. ¤