Arthur of Camelot

Remembering Arthur Schlesinger, a knight-errant with typewriter

“The American Scholar,” the 1837 Emerson oration that gave this publication its name, describes a mythical person who magically combines qualities of derring-do with intellectual rigor, and simultaneously fills the offices of “priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier.” Like most myths, it seems to exaggerate what is possible, unless Emerson was talking about himself, as he surely was. But a worthy successor to Emerson sprang up in the 20th century, now receding rapidly into the ancient bogs of history. In true mythic fashion, he was a man named Arthur and spent much of his time traveling toward Camelot.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. was born on October 15, 1917, a few months after the United States entered the First World War, and died nearly nine decades later, on February 28, 2007. If his arrival, in Columbus, Ohio, was a relatively quiet affair, his departure was anything but. A star-studded cast saw him off in style at an event held on April 23 in New York’s Cooper Union—the same place where Abraham Lincoln used history to seize the presidency. An astonishing lineup of politicians and intellectuals told anecdotes about Arthur—Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Ted Kennedy, Norman Mailer, Ted Sorensen, to name just a few. Emerson would have approved that this loud and festive event was open to the public, without charge.

Arthur’s midwestern origins (he also lived in Iowa, before his father got the call to Harvard in 1924) came as a surprise, perhaps even to him. With his almost comically exaggerated bow ties and smarty-pants demeanor, he could seem the quintessence of a certain kind of New Englander—the Harvard know-it-all. But an outsider’s distance always gave extra sharpness to this insider’s perspective—an Ohioan in Cambridge, a Cantabrigian in Washington and New York, a Stevenson man for Kennedy, a liberal anti-Communist, and, from his arrival on the literary scene in 1939, a somewhat anti-academic academic. A feeling of separation was clearly there at the beginning—why else would someone study the unorthodox thinker Orestes Brownson, who despised respectable Boston almost as much as it despised him? Arthur never received a Ph.D. either—preferring to write books without any accreditation from the guild. Perhaps a distrust of academic convention comes naturally to the offspring of academics—although few children ever said kinder things about their parents than Arthur, who changed his name so that he could add the “Jr.”

As someone who barely went to grad school, I found that perpetual tension—now inside the academy, now out—a source of great magnetism. Like most of us, I got to know Arthur the old-fashioned way, through his books (and it was not for many years after I began reading them that I actually met him). Around the third year of a Ph.D. program, I was approaching the crunch time of a dissertation decision—not only what topic to choose, but whether to even bother. I read widely and desperately, searching in vain for history books that would truly illuminate the past, books with vivid writing, sharp observations, and that rarest of all academic elements, humor.

I found all three under the tree one Christmas, in a book that looked like the last thing a serious scholar would ever read. The Book-of the-Month Club had just reissued Arthur’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Age of Jackson in a new format, with a garish cover (concealed by an even uglier cardboard box), too many illustrations, and, as if that wasn’t off-putting enough, a large-type intro. I read it with reluctance, then dawning fascination, then exhilaration. It wasn’t just that the author told the story of an age so richly, so audaciously (can anyone imagine a contemporary historian writing The Age of Anything?). It was the subversive way he kept using the past to upbraid the present for its injustices. This was a fighter’s book. It began with its dukes in the air, a frontispiece quote about the eternal conflict between the House of Have and the House of Want, penned by Arthur’s hero, the historian and diplomat George Bancroft. It never looked back.

I never did either. I ended up writing on the same period and was grateful when Arthur wrote a blurb for my first book, about Jacksonian New York (a far duller book than he ever wrote). Then, to my amazement, my career began to follow some of the grooves he had carved at midcentury. I got little history articles accepted by newspapers and magazines and, ultimately, was hired by the Clinton White House to be a speechwriter. Those were heady days. Arthur was still legendary in Washington, especially inside an administration that regarded the jfk precedent with respect and recognition. He came to White House events now and then and, though the decades had brought a little curvature, his wit was still rapier, and he could cast a spell over any dinner companion with his ability to summon a memory from the various pasts he had access to: 1962, or 1933 or 1837. Really, there’s no point in specifying—all of American history was seamless to him.

I stayed with the Clinton administration until the last day, then went off to teach in a tiny college on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. A few weeks later the phone rang, and Arthur was inviting me to lunch in New York. Of course I went; there were no longer any world crises to respond to. As I recall, we didn’t even look at the menu. By a strange alchemy, two very strong martinis simply arrived at our table, and then two steaks. As my head began to swim, Arthur made his pitch: he was editing a new series of biographies of all the presidents and thought I was the perfect person to do one of the biggest of the lot. I waited in breathless anticipation—and then I heard him speak words that sounded like “Martin Van Buren.”

Arthur was right, as usual. I enjoyed the project, digging up stories about a president almost no one has ever paid attention to—no one except Arthur. The Little Magician, as Van Buren was known to his friends, was a special favorite of his. Arthur had a deft touch as an editor, and the follow-up lunches were all highly entertaining, juniper-flavored affairs. Our conversations coincided with the run-up to the war in Iraq, and it was refreshing, in that invertebrate time, to hear him reflect on and reject the airy rationales summoned by the Bush administration to justify its invasion. He was especially sarcastic about the argument that we had to rush to war in March 2003 because it would become hot in the summer and uncomfortable. Four summers have elapsed since then, each a little hotter than the one before.

Emerson counseled that the office of the scholar is “to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.” More tartly, he wrote that if you see a lie to be a lie, “you have already dealt it its mortal blow.” No one loved his country more than Arthur—and no one was quicker to spot an evasion or half-truth cloaked in the star-spangled language of patriotism. He was dangerous to his final day, simply by paying attention. A friend of mine went to a dinner party on the last night of Arthur’s life and heard him breathlessly telling the guests about all the books he was looking forward to reading. The last time I had lunch with him, about a year ago, we exited the restaurant slowly, and he said, “My steps are wobbly, and my speech is halting, but I still wield a mean typewriter.”

I went to two events in his honor in the last few months of his life, both in Boston. At the Massachusetts Historical Society, a tribe of historians and ancient friends of the Society showed up to hear a speech that we all knew to be a valedictory, even if no one wanted to admit it. When introduced, Arthur had a little trouble standing, and even after he succeeded, it was not entirely clear that he had, because he had become so diminutive in advanced age. But then the old confidence returned, and he gave a speech blasting the imperial presidency. For decades he had warned against it, but never with the sharpness he now brought to the task. It was electrifying in those cloistered oaken rooms, where the old New England manuscripts (including Bancroft’s) are rarely disturbed by voices above a whisper. I felt like I was listening to Orestes Brownson.

A few weeks later, Arthur was speaking again, in a different kind of repository, the JFK Library. The crowd was large, unruly, and unacademic, and he clearly drew strength from it. This time he spoke from a wheelchair, but despite the sedentary position, there was no holding him back. He lit into Bush, and the audience loved it. Beyond specific matters relating to Iraq, what I think was fueling his anger was the way we chose to ignore history in planning for this conflict—the history of Iraq’s internal divisions; the history of our involvement in Indochina (which Arthur experienced both in and out of government); and the history of the world’s great hope that the United States would become a different kind of nation. It’s one thing to make a faulty decision—all presidents do that. But to do so out of a belligerent misunderstanding of how we arrived at this moment in the life of the United States—that, to Arthur, was past forgiving. He quoted JFK to good effect, from a lesser-known speech given in Seattle in 1961: “We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient—that we are only 6 percent of the world’s population—that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind—that we cannot right every wrong or reverse every adversity.”

Not to right every wrong—a rather shocking policy for an Arthurian in Camelot. But it was clearly the right one, in keeping with what all of Arthur’s heroes, including Abraham Lincoln, would have advised: that might is more effectively deployed for right if we have an extremely clear understanding of each. Those are the closing sentiments of the Cooper Union address, as Arthur, above all others, knew.

The rejection of omniscience also must have struck a chord with him, as part of the lifelong ambivalence that he displayed toward the academy, and it toward him. I don’t think his books are often assigned in college courses, and I never saw him at a history conference, though he was a lifelong member of the American Historical Association (as John F. Kennedy was, and Theodore Roosevelt before him). Arthur’s controversial 1991 book, The Disuniting of America, was unsparing in its criticism of political correctness—proof that he was no knee-jerk liberal. Perhaps he felt a Niebuhrian suspicion of those who claimed to know everything. Perhaps he simply had better parties to go to. But deep down, I think he agreed with Emerson’s distrust of the mere bookworm. More was expected:

Of course, he who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom. I will not shut myself out of this globe of action, and transplant an oak into a flower-pot, there to hunger and pine; nor trust the revenue of some single faculty, and exhaust one vein of thought, much like those Savoyards, who, getting their livelihood by carving shepherds, shepherdesses, and smoking Dutchmen, for all Europe, went out one day to the mountain to find stock, and discovered that they had whittled up the last of their pine-trees.

So Arthur ran eagerly into Emerson’s resounding tumult. And perhaps the academy’s loss was also the academy’s gain—for he clearly gave an intellectual cast to the White House it had not enjoyed previously, and would not again. The tiny White House Library, used as a recent backdrop for the speech announcing the Surge, was largely assembled by Arthur during his brief time there. I can’t help feeling that he helped the cause in other ways. The great confrontation of our time, the Cuban Missile Crisis, came out the right way because both sides showed a willingness to relax dogma at the crucial moment. Robert F. Kennedy, in his history of that crisis, wrote that Barbara Tuchman’s history of the beginnings of World War I, The Guns of August, had “made a great impression” on his brother, leading to a strong distrust, at precisely that moment, of those who would have precipitated this country into a conflict beyond the power of words to describe. I don’t know if Arthur supplied Tuchman’s book to JFK, but the back photo of his history A Thousand Days shows the 35th president peering over Arthur’s left shoulder at a book he is holding, and actually reading it. It’s comforting to know that books can be more than props for White House photo ops.

Less than a month before the abrupt end of the Kennedy administration, JFK gave a speech at Amherst College that celebrated America’s intellectual strength as an essential companion and corrective to our economic and military strength. It’s easy to find clichés in a presidential utterance, as Arthur knew better than anyone, and yet this one is more enduring than most—perhaps because Arthur wrote much of it. Many of the sound bites still bite. For example: “The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”

One always pulls down the old books at a moment like this, seeking contact with a friend. In The Politics of Hope, there is an essay Arthur wrote about Bernard DeVoto, another great historian who had inspired him and is now too seldom read. Arthur ended the essay with a passage DeVoto had written about Mark Twain, but which also seemed to be about himself.

Pessimism is only the name that men of weak nerves give to wisdom. Say rather that, when he looked at the human race, he saw no ranked battalion of the angels. . . . Say that with a desire however warm and with the tenderness of a lover, he nevertheless understood that the heart of a man is wayward, a dark forest. Say that it is not repudiation he comes to at last, but reconciliation—an assertion that democracy is not a pathway to the stars but only the articles of war under which the race fights an endless battle with itself.

Sometimes it seems like we have a lot of work to do just to catch up to the past. Arthur’s life exposed that truth; his departure only deepens it.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He is a contributing editor of The American Scholar.


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