Magazine article Humanities

The American Century Arthur Schlesinger, JR., Opens Our Past

Magazine article Humanities

The American Century Arthur Schlesinger, JR., Opens Our Past

Article excerpt

History, it seems, is not only in the facts, but also in the genes. Or so Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., laughingly conceded recently. "I grew up in a household that was saturated with history. Not only my father, but also my mother was a historian. Her maiden name was Bancroft and she was related to George Bancroft, a great American historian of the nineteenth century." Schlesinger carried on the family tradition, becoming a published historian at the tender age of twenty-two. That's when his Harvard senior thesis became his first book, Orestes Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress. He has been carrying on the family tradition ever since.

Schlesinger is the author of sixteen books published over the six decades since Orestes Brownson appeared in 1939. That book was followed by The Age of Jackson in 1945, a celebrated history that challenged the way the Jacksonian era was previously interpreted by historians. Schlesinger argued that Jacksonian democracy was a dramatic change for the better because it introduced the idea that individuals should be protected from business interests by a strong central government. The Age of Jackson was a best-seller and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, landing Schlesinger an appointment as an associate professor at Harvard despite the fact that he had never earned a Ph.D.

While teaching at Harvard during the forties and fifties, Schlesinger continued to produce important works of history, including three volumes in a series on the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. He was also active in national Democratic Party politics during those years, taking leaves from Harvard to advise Democratic presidential candidates in 1952,1956, and 1960. This political participation earned him an appointment as a special advisor to President John F. Kennedy, an opportunity for which Schlesinger resigned his Harvard professorship. His account of his years in the White House resulted in perhaps his best-known book, A Thousand Days: John F Kennedy in the White House, which again brought Schlesinger a Pulitzer Prize.

Throughout his career as a historian, Schlesinger has been committed to the idea that Americans need to understand their history in order to ensure the continued success of the American experiment. "History is to the nation much as memory is to the individual," Schlesinger says.

"The individual who loses his memory doesn't know where he came from or where he's going and he becomes dislocated and disoriented. …

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