The Historian as an Artist:

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.




In the nineteenth century, Thomas Carlyle of England spoke eloquently of heroes and hero-worship. The hero as a poet, the hero as a philosopher and the hero as a politician were some of his main categories. The social and economic conditions of the period were obviously conducive to the growth and survival of this concept. But then, do heroes and hero-worship have a place in this century, which is variously known as the century of the common man and the Age of Democracy? It is certainly an era of universal adult franchise, in which one man is deemed to be as good as any other. Even so, heroes of one kind or another, especially those in the political field, come in handy for the contemporary historian.


There is certainly a case for heroes, though not necessarily one for hero-worship, maintains the American historian and biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who won the National Book Award for his latest publication, which is on Robert Kennedy and his times. It is a substantial work of over a thousand pages, presenting not only a study in depth of Bobb Kennedy’s life but a perceptive, if slightly partisan, account of contemporary American politics as well. It is understandably a companion volume to the author’s earlier work on Robert’s older brother, entitled “A Thousand Days: John Kennedy in the White House.


A biographer can hardly do without a hero or an anti-hero, an idol to make for a pedestal or to break to public applause. Schlesinger is a historian with a flair for the biographical method. He started his literary career in his early ’Twenties some forty years ago with a sizable book on the life and ideas of Orestes A. Brownson, which he described as “a pilgrim’s progress.” Brownson was a slightly eccentric nineteenth century transcendentalist thinker, whose writing and intellectual wanderings represent the intellectual vitality and restlessness of the pre-civil war period. An intellectual of varied tastes, Schlesinger was quite at home in dealing with a subject, whose versatility was expressed in mystical poetry, foreign philosophy, religious ecstasy, social uplift and literary enthusiasm. It is an interesting book with youthful insights, not without some left-handed compliments. Comparing Brownson with his contemporary, Marx, he finds the latter “the best systematic thinker”, while dubbing the former “a top pamphleteer.”


Gen. Andrew Jackson, the Seventh President of the United States, was the hero of Schlesinger’s next book, brought out in 1945. The Age of Jackson was well-received in learned circles won him the Pulitzer Prize in history and helped to push him into the front rank of American historians. Schlesinger, the unrepentant Democrat, seeks effectively to establish here the connection between Jefferson, Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the chain of “the Revolutionary tradition.” The intellectual vigour, that is inseparable from his political partisanship lends an artistic unit to a book, not achieved in many other histories, which tend to be academic and diffuse.


In tackling the main problems inherent in the basic theme of this book, namely in arriving at an adequate definition of American liberalism and relating it to Jacksonian Democracy, both of which went to form the ideological matrix of the Democratic party, Schlesinger broke new ground. Without indulging himself in overworked affirmations about democracy as a Government of the people, by the people, for the people, the author stressed the point that the significance of Jacksonian Democracy lay in its effort to provide a rough framework of economic justice for an expanding nation. It also broke down the old stereotypes in vested interests, as indicated by Schlesinger’s question: “Was not Jacksons administration–a confession that Jaffersonianism required Hamiltonian means to achieve its ends?”


Before embarking on another historical work of equal magnitude, Schlesinger did a bit of pamphleteering in the late ’Forties In the Vital Centre, he had a fling at the obscurantists of the Right and the Wallacian Extremists of the Left, passing for “Progressive” The General and the President, written in collaboration with Richard H. Rovere, is a spicy commentary on the well-publicised encounter between Gen. MacArthur and President Truman. The latter came in for his share of criticism, possibly more, in this assessment:


“President Truman had the great virtue of rising to the occasions; he lacked the greater virtue of transcending them. His qualities were those of Polk rather than a Jackson or a Roosevelt, of an Attlee rather than a Churchill……”


In summing up the outcome of the whole episode, the authors add:


“This was not a failure of Policy; it was a failure in the communication of Policy.”


The Age of Roosevelt, in three parts, marks a natural return by Schlesinger to the central theme of the role of the hero in American Democracy. Only, this variation has its account on the hero as a man of action, a pragmatist in the modern context. The vivid titles for each of the three volumes–The Crisis of the Old Order, The Coming of the New Deal and The Politics of Upheaval are expressive in themselves, with no further elucidation. Sketching the background for the age, the author notes:


“The Age of Franklin Delano Roosevelt covered much more than the dozen years of his Presidency. The events of 1933-’45 climaxed half a century of American life. The nation, in responding to the bitter challenges of depression and war, summoned up the resources, moral and intellectual, of an earlier progressivism, an earlier war effort and a decade of business leadership…..”


The complex and resourceful personality of Roosevelt commands his unqualified admiration and stimulates his urge for poetic expression:


“The essence of Roosevelt, the quality which fulfilled the best in him and explained the potency of his appeal, was his intrepid and passionate affirmation. He always cast his vote for life, for action, for forward motion, for the future...He responded to what was vital, not to what was passing away He lived by his exultation, in distant horizons and uncharted seas. It was this which won him confidence and loyalty in a frightened age when the air was filled with the sound of certitudes cracking on every side….”


Even when he could not quite endorse the social and economic philosophy of Roosevelt, he could not withhold his sympathy and understanding from him, as is evident in the conclusion of the trilogy:


Roosevelt’s genius lay in the fact that he recognized–rather rejoiced in–the challenge to the pragmatic nerve. His basic principle was not to sacrifice human beings to logic...He had no philosophy save experiment, which was a technique constitutionalism, which was a procedure; and humanity which was a faith”        


If there was another modern hero with whom Schlesinger felt himself more enrapport than with Roosevelt, it was John F. Kennedy. Born in the same year, they were close contemporaries at Harvard. Allied in their political ideals, they were very much alike in their general intrests as well. They were personal friends too. In fact, he was on Kennedy’s staff as Special Assistant (and speech-writer). This would normally create problems for a biographer, as it did for a Schlesinger in his memoir on Kennedy in the White House, which he called A Thousand Days in the picturesque manner, reminiscent of Philip Guedalla. It would be hard for anyone to combine the intimacy of a special assistant with the objectivity of an historian and the critical approach of a biographer. Not that he did not try, but he did not quite succeed. But the book was a popular hit, a commercial success, beyond all expectations. It is a lively portrait that emerges from the lengthy book.


Where he does not approve, he excuses. Kennedy’s coolness and calculation, for instance:


“Of course, there was an element of legerdemain in all this. Every politician has to fake a little and Kennedy was a politician determined to become President...But only the unwary could really suppose that his “coolness” was because he felt too little. It was because he felt too much and had to compose himself for an existence filled with disorder and despair.”


In spite of occasional insights and bright passages, A Thousand Days does not attain the sustained readability of its two major predecessors. It falls short of greatness, the Pulitzer Prize for biography notwithstanding. One of the least charitable of its critics, Gore Vidal, chose to describe it as the best political novel since Disraeli’s Coningsby. With his ardent admiration for Dizzy, the author took it as a compliment in disguise!


If A Thousand Days is viewed by some as a group photograph with the spotlight on John Kennedy. Robert Kennedy and His Times is another group photograph with the spotlight on Robert. It is more of a family portrait of a leading clan of Boston Brahmins, intelligent and wealthy; smart and successful; determined and public-spirited. They are close-knit, traditional.


For Father Joseph, money mattered much; but family mattered more. He made his millions on the stock market and became the American Ambassador to England before the Second World War. He was a worshipper of success at all cost. “I want no failures around here, no seconds and thirds, only winners”, he would tell his brood of nine children. He drove them hard till they reached the goal he set for them.


One of them reached the top of the ladder and was snatched away from there. The other was cut down, while he was about to reach it. They were cast in the role of men of destiny; but they were star-crossed, besides. The family-bonds were very clear as among the Cecils and Chamberlains of England, the Bounapartes of France and the Nehrus of India. President Kennedy depended a lot on his younger brother, who was not only his Attorney-General, but his shock-absorber and conscience-keeper. In Indian terms, they could be the noble Rama and his loyal brother Lakshmana.


They were complementary to each other and made an effective team, despite the natural reaction of jealousy all around. John Kennedy was the poet, imaginative, charismatic, always the man with style. Robert Kennedy was the planner and the prosecutor, hard-headed, almost ruthless, the man with a purpose. Having known both of them well and watched them at close quarters, the President even closer, Schlesinger is able to give us the deepest insights into their character. For him, theirs was the new age of Pericles He also corrects quite a few popular impressions.


The study in comparison, done by the author, is among the highlights of the book. He says:


“Alike in many ways, united in so many indestructible bonds, the two brothers were still different men. John Kennedy remained the Brahmin; Robert the Puritan. In English terms one was a Whig, the other a Radical...One was a man for whom everything seemed easy; the other a man for whom everything had been difficult. One was always graceful, the other often graceless.”


Robert Kennedy had the reputation of being tough, practical and ruthless. But Schlesinger maintains that appearances could often be, and in this case were, deceptive. Quoting Plerre Salinger, he says:


“Robert Kennedy gave the impression of a very tough man, when he was, in fact, very gentle. John Kennedy, under his perfect manners, was one of the toughest men that ever was.”


Going deeper down to first principles and personal faith, Schlesinger looks upon John Kennedy as more Greek than Christian in his ethos, taking his idea of happiness from the Aristotelian concept of the pursuit of excellence, while his brother was deeply catholic in his belief, submitting to the supremacy of grace. The balance and antithesis in the summing up are striking:


“John Kennedy was a realist brilliantly disguised as a romantic; Robert Kennedy, a romantic stubbornly disguised as a realist.”


In this masterpiece of contemporary American history, Schlesinger enhances his reputation as a sty list. He also establishes his links with the English historical tradition from Gibbon and Macaulay through Trevelyan and Namier to Bryant and Taylor. There must be many modern American historians more learned and authoritative than Schlesinger, but few more readable. His partisanship may at times be irritating, but his presentation is brilliant in its totality. The overall theme of his writing is the hero as an American Liberal Democrat. In the process of projecting it, one gets a measure of the author’s own personality–of the historian as an artist.