The first volume of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s memoirs, A Life in the Twentieth Century,1 didn’t exactly race through his early years. When it ended at the century’s midpoint on page 523, its hero was thirty-three. The justification for all those pages was in the good-humored and reflective telling, his passion for witnessing history as well as writing it, and its unusually large cast of characters. The young historian may not have known everyone who counted politically and intellectually in New York, London, and Washington but he was well on his way. Those he didn’t know firsthand, he heard about secondhand, and, across all the years, he’d retained stories and snatches of conversation that told a bigger story than that of his own impressive rise. Somewhat diffidently, in the preface to the memoir, he admitted to drawing on diaries and notes he had kept “intermittently” over the years but chided himself for not keeping them “more faithfully.” Now it turns out that they amounted to more than six thousand typed pages.
Schlesinger, it appears, never thought of himself as a contemporary Pepys or suggested that his journal entries could be assembled as a book; in his mind they were reference material, the core of his archive on the era through which he had lived. Deep into his ninth decade, still trying to write the second volume of his memoir, which he did not live to finish, the historian allowed his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, to inspect them and then show them to publishers. In the resulting auction, Arthur Schlesinger had one of the biggest literary paydays of his long career. He then asked his sons, Stephen and Andrew, to make the selection for a book. According to Stephen Schlesinger, whom I reached by phone, they removed nothing on grounds of privacy or other extra-editorial considerations; their father, he said, removed no more than fifteen or twenty pages that might have wounded friends, none for political reasons.
What’s left, now published as Schlesinger’s Journals, represents roughly one sixth of the total. Don’t look here for revelations of the Kennedy years. Schlesinger is easily persuaded in the privacy of his journal that the President wasn’t apprised of the Central Intelligence Agency’s various plots to kill Fidel Castro and that there was nothing to rumors that he was on heavy medication for Addison’s disease (conclusions that over the years have become more rather than less debatable). Still, his Journals deserve to be welcomed as an unexpected gift. Dense with anecdotes, gossip, and cameo portraits drawn from the overlapping political, literary, and social circles in which he was a fixture for the half-century it spans, the volume stands as something more than a substitute for the second volume of Schlesinger’s memoir (which could hardly have been contained, at the rate he was going, in two volumes).
The Journals are fresher, less filtered, less inclined to take the long view than the memoir. They offer unrevised and shifting opinions on issues and people. Their…
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