The Age of Schlesinger


“History,” wrote the British historian C.V. Wedgwood, “is lived forwards but it is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s engrossing autobiography of his coming of age as a man, as a historian, and as a political activist tells the remarkable story of how, in an age of competing ideologies, he emerged as a paladin of anti-Communist liberalism.

It was a liberalism that was first encouraged by his family—Schlesinger’s father was a distinguished scholar of social and cultural American history; his mother, according to family tradition, was descended from George Bancroft, America’s first major historian. Schlesinger was born in Ohio, on October 15, 1917, while his father was teaching at Ohio State University; he spent his early boyhood in Iowa City, an agreeable midwestern university town, where his father also taught. The family’s roots, however, were in Xenia, Ohio, which was where his grandfather arrived in 1872 from East Prussia. A Jewish merchant, Bernhard Schlesinger fell in love with a Roman Catholic Austrian girl whom he met in Xenia; the young couple resolved the religious problems of their mixed marriage by becoming Protestants and joining the German Reformed Church. Bernhard’s son, Arthur Schlesinger Sr., was born in Xenia, and Schlesinger Jr.’s early memories are more vividly of Xenia than of Iowa City; his description of Xenia is reminiscent of a Booth Tarkington town, where his father “fished and swam on summer days and took bobsleigh rides in winter moonlight.”

After graduating from a good public school and proving himself a voracious reader in Xenia’s 30,000-volume public library, Schlesinger Sr. entered Ohio State as a member of the class of 1910 at the height of the Progressive era, when the 1908 election pitted the populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan against Theodore Roosevelt’s chosen successor, William Howard Taft. Schlesinger Sr. admired Bryan. As his son tells it, Xenia contained not only Anglo-Saxons but also “large and visible contingents of Germans and Irish. So many blacks lived in Xenia’s East End that a local joke described Xenia as the place where the Underground Railroad had broken down. Yet the textbooks my father read in the Xenia schools portrayed Great Britain as the one and only mother country.”

His father, he writes, reacted to the “triple challenge of broadening American history beyond its Anglo-Saxon base, of understanding how multifarious newcomers were transformed into Americans, and of recovering the past in its social and cultural totality.” At this period American history was not only narrowly Anglo-Saxon but also strictly limited to politics, war, and diplomacy. What Schlesinger Sr. wanted was a history that reflected the social and cultural factors so potent in the American story.

The election of 1912 pitted Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism not only against President William Howard Taft’s conservative Republicanism, but also against Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom (as well as the socialism of Eugene Debs, who won almost…

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