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A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950.

A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950, by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 557 pages. $28.95.

Liberalism is the only mature political philosophy of our time. That is, it is the only philosophy suited both to humanity's virtues and to its inevitable flaws, to its aspirations and its desires. This is one reason why Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century, lacks the melodrama we have come to expect from the standard American intellectual memoir. The great convention of the genre, after all, has become one of conversion, usually from Communism to rabid anti-Communism. And this tedious, deterministic pendulum swing--from man as a function of inexorable Marxian laws to man as a cog in the great, shiny clockwork of the market--is absent from Schlesinger's book, as it has been from his career.

"It is, I suppose, evidence of lack of imagination or of some other infirmity of character, but I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that I have not radically altered my general outlook in the more than half century since The Vital Center's publication," writes Schlesinger, referring to the work that first fully defined his abiding faith in liberalism. "Perhaps I should apologize.... But in fact I have not been born again, and there it is."

Even more annoying than his consistency is how consistently Schlesinger has been right. He was right about the need to stand up to Hitler and fascism in the thirties, and right about the need to contain Stalin and Communism in the forties. He was right in refusing to join the fellow-traveling Progressives in 1948, and right in standing up to cynical conservatives seeking to exploit anti-Communism to their own ends. He remains largely right even today, in opposing the multicultural reduction of the American left to a meaningless stew of identity politics.

But, above all, he has been right about liberalism. Before the coming of the New Deal, the United States was a country of immense energy and genius--one perennially racked by economic meltdowns, labor strife, savage racial oppression, and gaping social inequities. It was liberalism that provided a viable system of liberty in the industrial age--that enabled (as David Fromkin terms it in In the Time of the Americans) the creation of "the magnificent country"--those years when the United States bestrode the planet as no other nation has, enjoying undeniably the greatest confluence of human liberty, opportunity, and prosperity that the world has witnessed. This was a time when America helped dispatch the two great totalitarian ideologies of the century and sped the breakup of the old colonial empires; when its citizens blithely dominated the globe, not only through military might and industrial production but in high art and popular culture, from the fields of plenty to the frontiers of space.

Most of the stupidity and greed that were also part of the story--the ecological rapaciousness, the failure to aid the developing world, the disaster of Vietnam--came about when we abandoned first principles and turned over decisions to unaccountable concentrations of power. It remained the liberal idea that lifted the United States, and the rest of the Western world (along with parts of Asia) that it had rescued, up to new heights of human possibility.

Yet this is already becoming the forgotten story of the twentieth century. The standard, media-blended versions circulating since the turn of the millennium attribute America's superpower status solely to the vague triumph of "capitalism"--or that most generic brand, "freedom"--over Communism. This is a meaningless confabulation, particularly in a society that increasingly regards freedom as a larger selection of television channels (from a single cable provider) or the right to transmit code viruses, sexual fantasies, and blustery insults over the Internet.

"Freedom" can, and has, meant just about anything to anyone over the past hundred years or so, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. discovered firsthand. His great contribution has been constantly to seek its real meaning, in such seminal works of political philosophy as The Vital Center, The Imperial Presidency, and The Cycles of American History, or to chronicle its progress, in such histories as The Age of Jackson, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, and especially his majestic, three-volume work, The Age of Roosevelt.

In keeping with his central creed of man as a character possessed of free will, Schlesinger has been an unflagging partisan--as a member of the Kennedy White House and as a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson and many other liberal politicians. He has been as well an insouciant, rakish presence around one debating table or another for half a century now. Here is the true happy warrior, the historian as Cyrano--plunging joyfully into the fray against all odds and fashions, roiling academia anew with his 1991 polemic, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society.

Born in 1917, Schlesinger appears to have led an idyllic childhood--several of them, in fact. There are the early memories of shooting off firecrackers from the lush, green lawn of the family homestead in Xenia, Ohio. There is the move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Dad, Arthur Sr., an eminent scholar in his own right and an early champion of the groundbreaking "New History" movement, joins the Harvard faculty; the years growing up in a home full of politics and history, music and scintillating conversation, a home so routinely crowded with the blithest spirits and finest minds of academia that young Arthur initially mistakes the great western historian Bernard DeVoto for the family bootlegger.

There is even a trip around the world at the age of fifteen, a grand tour through the penumbra of the fading colonial world. Later, after Harvard and a first book at the age of twenty-one, there is a fellowship to England's Cambridge, just in time for the nervous year of 1938-39, the Munich Crisis, and the dreadful, unreal descent into war. And then the whirlwind--back to Harvard for more graduate work, marriage, family, and a start on his masterful The Age of Jackson. Then the war, and bureaucratic postings in Washington and Paris--another perfect observer's cockpit for a young historian.

The Age of Jackson, which was finished in spare moments during the war, won him the Pulitzer, national fame, and twenty-five weeks on the bestseller list, all at the age of twenty-eight. In it, Schlesinger managed to change the long-held popular understanding of Jackson's rise to power and the America of his time, tracing how so much of the great populist contest of that era developed not from the celebrated, rugged frontier but from the emerging industrial struggles in the eastern cities. Afterward, Schlesinger entered onto a brief journalistic career spent interviewing the leading American political figures in the late forties, engaged in much intellectual combat with conservatives and Communists alike, and finally "settled down" on the Harvard faculty, along with his father--just down the street from the Julia Childs and over the fence from the John Kenneth Galbraiths.

Such a life! We are treated to an endless succession of sparkling dinner parties, searing philosophical debates, grand theater openings; a parade of brilliant colleagues and their dazzling wives (young Arthur gets dazzled a lot, one of his more endearing qualities). But there is the rub. Too much of A Life in the Twentieth Century reads like a testament to the destructive power of a diary. This is especially disappointing given that Schlesinger's forte as an historian has always been his ability to convert enormous amounts of information into brilliant, literary narratives. There are some vivid scenes here, particularly from the years leading up to the Second World War. In an almost novelistic passage, we see Schlesinger driving west across the United States with Benny DeVoto in the summer of 1940--discussing whether the country should intervene in Europe as the car moves farther and farther into the heartland. On the same trip, a few days after the fall of Paris, Schlesinger finds himself at an evangelist camp meeting near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, "along a black lake, the waters rippling in the mild wind.... One first heard an indistinct moaning, weird cries rising out of the crowd."

But soon those weird, mystic cries fade--and back march the endless lists of plays and movies, professors and fellow students, favorite actors and singers, the dinner parties and the cocktails; the novels, the sunsets--yet very few skirts that trail along the floor. Herein lies another problem. When it comes to anything of an intimate nature, it is as if the author has--like his greatest subject, Franklin Delano Roosevelt--mastered the art of misdirection through overwhelming loquaciousness. (A Life in the Twentieth Century is 557 pages long, with index, and carries the reader only into its author's thirty-third year.) It is hard to say whether this should be attributed to an ingrained WASP reticence or to a stoical disposition. From his childhood years, we are granted only the barest glimpses of any emotional turmoil: a camp report that describes him as popular and adds, "Emotionally he is a little high-strung"; a general picture of an adolescent a little unsure around girls and a little too sure of his opinions (as bookish boys often are).

We can surmise that the parental bonds are close; his letters to them both are filled, well into adulthood, with details of his personal and professional life. Yet aside from the wistful suggestion that his father spent too much time editing other people's work (in his mammoth A History of American Life series), there is almost nothing said about the younger Schlesinger's decision to work in the same field, no inner thoughts or conflicts--not even, most noticeably, about surpassing his father's accomplishments (at least in the public's eye) at such a young age.

The four children that Schlesinger has fathered by the end of the book, and his one sibling, a younger brother named Tom, are barely mentioned. There are intimations that his marriage to his first wife, Marian Cannon, is doomed from the start, but we are given little reason beyond the fact that she is five years older than he. When the book finds him stationed in Paris, in 1944-45, his descriptions of his relationships with both Tom and Marian reach almost laughable levels of evasiveness. There he has an affair with an unnamed woman, and his brother comes through town on his way to the front. Schlesinger's ambivalence about both of these liaisons is conveyed almost entirely through excerpts from a pair of short stories he submitted to The New Yorker!

His impressions of less intimate friends and acquaintances are more verbose but hardly more enlightening. He bends over backward to give a scrupulous, and usually favorable, account of nearly everyone he has ever met. "To my surprise, I found that I liked him," he writes on interviewing "Mr. Republican," Senator Robert Taft, in 1947. We are not in the least surprised, for Schlesinger has already established himself as a sort of Will Rogers of the political world, proclaiming his personal affection for everyone from Communists to conservatives, including those he has engaged in furious political debate. This speaks well for both the man and the historian: integrity runs like a silver thread throughout Schlesinger's life and work (and thus we are supplied with both critical and favorable reactions to almost everything he wrote up until 1950). This is not, however, why we read autobiographies.

Perhaps the historian's intent has been simply to leave a trustworthy, objective record of his time. Hence his reaction to nearly every treasured novel, every movie, every television show, every play--including university productions. But the usefulness of his cultural reactions, too, is often muted by the creeper vines of fogyism. A Life in the Twentieth Century is peppered with the sort of parenthetical remarks your grandfather thinks of as real zingers, such as how "gay" used to mean something else before homosexuals took it over, or how "man" used to refer to all of humanity, or why can't we call "Native Americans" Indians anymore. Much of this is not so subtly directed toward Schlesinger's most recent dragon, "the multiculturalists." A worthy target--but the professor more often ends up disemboweling himself with his own rapier. Most annoyingly, he possesses his generation's tin ear on matters of color, informing us that "in 1997, dining with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Stanley Crouch and the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, I was cheered to learn that many black Americans also enjoyed `Amos `n' Andy.'" Later, he writes of how "in the tolerant days of my youth, the comedian Eddie Cantor could cheerfully go on in blackface and describe himself as the coon from Kuhn Loeb and Company." Yes, and that Hank Aaron fellow is certainly a credit to his race.

Schlesinger is always on much firmer ground when he writes about ideas and the great sweep of history. What ultimately makes A Life in the Twentieth Century worth the plod is the book's climax, when event and analysis finally coincide. This concerns the intriguing, turbulent years right after World War II, before the Cold War sides have quite set. Schlesinger becomes fully embroiled in the battle to fend off both Stalinism and the reprehensible attempt by the American right to exploit the Cold War for its own purposes, a battle that culminates in the publication of what may well prove to be his most important work, The Vital Center, at the age of just thirty-one. Here, in describing the road to the one real epiphany of his life, Schlesinger's thoughts and words ring like crystal.

First there is the Damascene moment in the winter of 1940-41 when, still chary after Coeur d'Alene, he is dragged by his wife to listen to an obscure, balding, middle-aged theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr speak at Harvard's Memorial Church. "His eyes flashed; his voice rose to a roar and sank to a whisper; outstretched arms gave emphasis to his points; but, underneath the dramatics, the argument was cool, rigorous and powerful," Schlesinger writes of that Sunday, sixty years ago:
   Man was flawed and sinful, he told the hushed but initially dubious
   audience. Yet even sinful man had the duty of acting against evil in the
   world. Our sins, real as they were, could not justify our standing apart
   from the European struggle.

Where such ideas had been used before to beat a retreat to a conservative, Hobbesian view of society, Niebuhr turned them on their collective head. In his vision, the very imperfectibility of human nature, the very humility that man must impose upon himself, made radical democracy an imperative. The strong man, or the junta, or the plutocracy, could no more be trusted with a monopoly on power than the commissariat. "He summed up his argument in a single, mighty sentence," writes Schlesinger, and the sentence was: "`Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.'"

Modern liberalism had evolved in practice, like all the best American inventions, as a series of brilliant improvisations. Schlesinger would use Niebuhr's ideas to hone it into a "fighting faith." A nonbeliever, Schlesinger took up original sin "not as revealed truth but as powerful metaphor, [which] undermined absolutist pretensions and set sharp limits on human wisdom and aspiration." For him, this metaphor was a way of understanding that "Man is at once free and unfree, creator as well as creature of history; he has the obligation to act or to suffer the consequences of inaction." Schlesinger now adds a mighty sentence of his own: "His knowledge is fragmentary, his righteousness is illusory, his motives are tainted, but, aware of the precariousness of human striving, he must strive nevertheless."

In aiming for the highest of ends, through the most pragmatic of means, liberalism would make the other, more "hard-headed" philosophies of our time seem ridiculous. Indeed, they now sound like nothing so much as carny grotesques, all these once "natural" laws of humanity, left and right: the invisible hand and the dialectic; the New Man, Maggie Thatcher's society that doesn't exist, and the state that withers away. In their place, Schlesinger and his fellow liberals posited a "conflict [that] is also the guarantee of freedom; it is the instrument of change; it is, above all, the source of discovery, the source of art, the source of love." And this creative tension is so intrinsically human--this acknowledgment of human limitations so exquisite--that Schlesinger, in critiquing his own beliefs of the late 1940s, now believes it inevitably would have undermined even the worst of totalitarian nightmares. For despite 1984's useful scare tactics, "totalitarianism in the pure and complete sense was inherently unattainable; and in consequence ... totalitarian states were not unchanging and unchangeable."

Even then, at the start of the Cold War, some sense of this totalitarian vulnerability led Schlesinger to reject hysterical anti-Communism and, in The Vital Center, to forecast with stunning accuracy the coming nationalistic splits within the Communist world. He was instrumental in joining with other leading liberals to carve out that center in domestic politics, helping to found Americans for Democratic Action and to make the liberal argument for Truman and against Henry Wallace's Communist-dominated Progressive Party in the 1948 election. At the same time, he refused to let anti-Communism become an all-encompassing obsession and always perceived laissez-faire conservatism as the other enemy within.

The standard to which Schlesinger always returned was democracy, which for him "put the state up for grabs" and was "the means by which noncapitalists--farmers, workers, intellectuals, minorities--could invoke the state to defend themselves against capitalist exploitation." In thus seizing upon the possibilities offered by democracy, Schlesinger argues, it was liberals who defeated totalitarianism, through creating a more humane and just form of capitalism--though "advocates of the affirmative state had to fight conservatism at every step along the way."

Having defined the liberal ideal against totalitarianism and conservatism, Schlesinger has maintained an admirably fluid concept of liberalism itself. For all his lunges at the multiculturalists, he repeatedly criticizes his own work over the years for being deficient in the attention it pays to civil rights, women, the environment. Revisionism is the necessary testing of any theory, the scientific and humanist tradition in action, messy as it can be. "The very inscrutability of history refutes theories of determinism and leaves a margin in which people are free to make their own future," is how he ends A Life in the Twentieth Century. "Or so I believed then, and still believe now."

This is perhaps not quite enough, in light of the last few years, particularly when one considers that American liberalism is now very dead and shows every sign of remaining so into the distant future. Schlesinger's memoir came out too early to take note of the 2000 electoral debacle, but there were plenty of disturbing signs beforehand that the vital center could no longer hold. Liberalism ran out of energy a generation ago, and now even the basic political civility promised by George W. Bush seems irretrievable. We sit amid the wreckage of a political system crushed by money, smothered in cynicism, mediocrity, sheer animosity.

One has the uneasy feeling that what will intrigue future historians most about the American republic is how easily it fell. Consider that day last November when a mob of Republican congressional aides and hired operatives stormed a municipal building in Miami, Florida, and halted a court-ordered ballot count--thereby effectively deciding a presidential election. The obscure New York congressman in charge of this pocket coup picked up a phone, spoke the words "Shut it down," and the whole structure of American democracy collapsed like the empire of the Incas when confronted by Pizarro and his band of freebooters. What happened? How had the vital center been so hollowed out?

To be sure, our idea of the Supreme Court as a bastion of sacrosanct constitutional authority--largely a liberal creation--had long been whittled back down to our acceptance of it as a gang of shoddy political hacks. Yet this still begs the question. For all the rabbit y "We will survive" pronouncements of the news media, most of the American public had already moved on--the whole election no more than an episode in the endless circus of spectacular murders, trials, sex scandals. Within weeks, jokes about chads were imbedded in our potato-chip commercials. How was it that Americans so readily surrendered the faith of their fathers? How is it that we now seem quite willing as a people to as soon accept, say, Singapore's "Asian model" of democracy (save for its curbs on automatic weapons)?

Schlesinger and Niebuhr would likely argue that this is very much within their conception of the vital center; that no victory in the cause of liberty is ever final, that action (and inaction) has consequences. This is important to remember--but it leaves us haunted by the specter of determinism. It could be argued, after all, that liberalism's great triumph came during a particular, limited period of favorable circumstances. In practice, it tended to rest on a "golden triangle" of big government, big labor, and big business--each keeping the other effectively in check, and all bolstered and disciplined at the same time by the Cold War. Take away the dire, foreign threat, remove one of the legs of the triangle--the power of big labor--and what do we have? Are we entering the era of post-democratic man?

In Schlesinger's one stab at the future, he gently rejects the attempt by Bill Clinton and his hired fetishist to hijack the vital center for their own, narrow political ends--"In my view, the middle of the road is definitely not the vital center," he writes. "It is the dead center." Loyal Democratic soldier that he is, Schlesinger attempts to give Clinton credit for understanding the vast change inherent in the digital economy and for trying "to establish a new framework for the computer age." But far from leading to a new vital center, Clinton's whole "bridge-to-the-twenty-first-century" never seemed like much more than convenient gobbledygook--a trite formulation that dared not speak truth to power (or anyone else).

Could this, then, be the true silver bullet of the liberal idea? Could it be that, having routed all the totalitarian ideologies of the last century, liberalism was bound to falter in the amorphous, post-ideological, naked-power world of today? We can only hope that an intellect as perceptive--and consistently right--as Schlesinger's will speak to this question in the later volumes of his memoirs. In the meantime, we will have to rely on freedom, now available through faith-based, nongovernmental organizations everywhere.

Kevin Baker is the author of the best-selling historical novel Dreamland and of the forthcoming Paradise Alley, to be published by HarperCollins in 2002.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Baker, Kevin
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2001
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