An admiring portrait of a historian who made history.
When he was 28, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1917-2007) won a Pulitzer Prize for his first book, The Age of Jackson, an intellectual history of Jacksonian democracy set in a sweeping social, economic, and cultural context. Selling an astonishing 90,000 copies in its first year, it was acclaimed by many historians as “the most influential book of the postwar era” and marked the beginning of Schlesinger’s illustrious career as a writer, professor, prominent liberal intellectual, and, most notably, presidential adviser to John F. Kennedy. Aldous (History/Bard Coll.; Tony Ryan: Ireland’s Aviator, 2013, etc.) draws on Schlesinger’s prolific publications, letters, and diaries, as well as interviews with family members and colleagues, to produce a well-paced, lively biography of a controversial figure. He was a brilliant man derided as “a court historian” for his golden portrayal of the Kennedys as well as an eyewitness to history who held firmly to the “Progressive notion that historical inquiry might promote liberal reform.” A sharp analyst and outspoken adviser, Schlesinger “was both a small ‘d’ democrat and a snob; his clever, ironic personality could also be waspish and peevish.” The son of a historian and Harvard professor, he deferred a career in academia to go to Washington to write for Fortune magazine. There, he socialized with the Georgetown set: Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Philip Graham, Averell Harriman, Clark Clifford, and other influential men. A supporter of Adlai Stevenson, Schlesinger defected to Kennedy, although he questioned the president’s commitment to liberalism. When Kennedy invited Schlesinger to join the White House staff, both men saw the advantage: as “in-house liberal” and “intellectual gadfly,” Schlesinger gained a privileged position as witness, participant, and chronicler; Kennedy saw Schlesinger as a historian-in-residence who would shape and burnish his legacy. He performed that task admirably in A Thousand Days (1964). By the 1990s, identity politics and attention to diversity left his historical stance open to criticism.
A solid, well-researched life of one of America’s “finest narrative historians.”