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Arthur Meier Schlesinger Sr.

November-December 2004

Thanks to the recent publication of Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr.'s A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950, his father Arthur Meier Schlesinger's In Retrospect: The History of a Historian now forms the opening part of a unique family panor ama of American life stretching from the senior Schlesinger's childhood in late nineteenth-century Xenia, Ohio, where encounters with Civil War veterans were a daily occurrence, to the son's involvement in public debates over the invasion of Iraq, which will presumably be covered in the promised second volume of his memoirs.

Arthur Meier Schlesinger Sr.
Portrait courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

The senior Schlesinger's memoir, published in 1963 when the younger Schlesinger was making history as part of John Ken nedy's White House, reflected the optimism of a generation whose lives had coincided with America's transformation into a great world power and with the apparent victory of liberal and progressive values in American life. Looking back, Schlesinger wrote that "my youthful environment...provided an image of America as a pluralistic society as well as a land of opportunity, and nothing in later life has dimmed the vision."

Schlesinger had already thrown himself into campaigns for progressive causes during his years of teaching at Ohio State and the University of Iowa. When Harvard recruited him in 1924, however, he found himself in a position to have a much greater impact on national affairs. His memoir recalls campaigns for justice for the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s, for the election of FDR, and for American engagement in the war against Hitler. He helped found the influential liberal group Americans for Democratic Action in the 1940s, and opposed McCarthyism in the 1950s. Although not all of these crusades succeeded, nothing shook Schlesinger's faith in the basic decency of the American people. Even the unfounded accusations of communist sympathy that kept his son from being given a naval commission during World War II struck the father as "the well-meant if misguided efforts of persons who believed they were acting in a spirit of the highest patriotism."

At Harvard, Schlesinger took an active role in demanding greater faculty rights during the 1930s and in defending freedom of speech on the campus. Harvard, in his recollections, had never been perfect but was always open to reform: "There was an unceasing spirit of revolt against repose." He remembered the history department in his day as congenial, very different from the "snake pit" his son claimed to have experienced after the father's retirement. Little dreaming how radically the field of history would be shaken by ideological and methodological controversies after the early 1960s, he used his memoir to praise "the consensus in regard to the major forces and events in American history" that historians had achieved, asserting that "the differences that persist concern matters of detail."

The Historian-Autobiographers

See also:

H. Stuart Hughes

Ivy League Insider

Harvard Historian's Memoirs

Schlesinger was well aware that some of his optimism reflected the tremendous improvement in the situation of university professors during his career. "To an old-timer," he wrote, "the contrast with earlier conditions is somewhat like that between the hair shirt and purple and fine linen." Rather than imitating the critical stance of Henry Adams, Schlesinger fitted himself and his life at Harvard into the dominant strain of American life-writing: the optimistic fusion of private and public memory that goes back to Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography.