This book is first a story about a historian and political activist, an individual with human strengths and weaknesses who made an important contribution to the national political and intellectual culture. Whatever else this volume is about, I hope that story itself is not lost. But there are several themes that I address most thoroughly in my account of Henry Steele Commager's life, and for me they structure what the book is about.
First, I've employed Commager's career to explore the relationship between the midcentury generation of scholars and the late-century (baby boomer) generation in the university. As a midcentury intellectual historian and American studies figure, Commager serves as a particularly good figure through which to assess the cultural wars that have torn the nation in the 1980s and 1990s. Every young generation distinguishes itself by symbolically slaying the generation before it, and it is fitting that Commager's crowd fell under the knife a quarter century ago. But the time to reassess our midcentury culture is upon us, and no figure holds a more central vantage from which to view the struggle than Commager. I suggest that my generation (I was born in 1952) has underestimated and misunderstood the contribution of midcentury liberals and that we should incorporate more of their ideas and commitments into our own cultural agenda. The record of the generational battles involving Commager is the history of the cultural feuds still with us today, and that is the most important reason I have chosen to subtitle the book Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present.
Second, because Commager's involvement in civic issues covered the century so widely and prominently, I have used him to chart the course of twentieth-century American liberalism with all its ironies, contradictions, and good intentions. Especially in the last half of the century, conservatives accused liberals of being leftists, and leftists accused liberals of being cold war conservatives who abandoned affirmative action. I suggest that liberals, caught in the middle (and how much glory is there in the middle of anything?), held to the beneficial principles of intellectual freedom, pragmatism, democratic toleration, and cultural diversity.