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Awards & Honors: 1998 National Humanities Medalist

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

History, it seems, is not only in the facts, but also in the genes. Or so Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., laughingly conceded recently. “I grew up in a household that was saturated with history. Not only my father, but also my mother was a historian. Her maiden name was Bancroft and she was related to George Bancroft, a great American historian of the nineteenth century.” Schlesinger carried on the family tradition, becoming a published historian at the tender age of twenty-two. That’s when his Harvard senior thesis became his first book, Orestes Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress. He has been carrying on the family tradition ever since.

Schlesinger is the author of sixteen books published over the six decades since Orestes Brownson appeared in 1939. That book was followed by The Age of Jackson in 1945, a celebrated history that challenged the way the Jacksonian era was previously interpreted by historians. Schlesinger argued that Jacksonian democracy was a dramatic change for the better because it introduced the idea that individuals should be protected from business interests by a strong central government. The Age of Jackson was a best-seller and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, landing Schlesinger an appointment as an associate professor at Harvard despite the fact that he had never earned a Ph.D.

While teaching at Harvard during the forties and fifties, Schlesinger continued to produce important works of history, including three volumes in a series on the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. He was also active in national Democratic Party politics during those years, taking leaves from Harvard to advise Democratic presidential candidates in 1952, 1956, and 1960. This political participation earned him in an appointment as a special advisor to President John F. Kennedy, an opportunity for which Schlesinger resigned his Harvard professorship. His account of his years in the White House resulted in perhaps his best-known book, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which again brought Schlesinger a Pulitzer Prize.

Throughout his career as a historian, Schlesinger has been committed to the idea that Americans need to understand their history in order to ensure the continued success of the American experiment. “History is to the nation much as memory is to the individual,” Schlesinger says. “The individual who loses his memory doesn’t know where he came from or where he’s going and he becomes dislocated and disoriented. Similarly, a nation that forgets its history is disabled in dealing with the present and the future.” In his most recent book, The Disuniting of America, Schlesinger argues that Americans must focus on what brings them together. He warns against the “cult of ethnicity,” which has the potential to tear the nation apart, much as it has in other troubled regions of the world. “What holds us together is a common commitment to the processes laid down in the Constitution,” he says. “Part of the wisdom of the Constitution is its promise of equal rights for everybody; so even those people who are denied their full constitutional rights are provided with the means by which they can claim those rights.”

After his years in the Kennedy White House, Schlesinger became the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at the City University of New York. He taught in New York for the next three decades, retiring two years ago. He hopes to return to his series of books on FDR, picking up where he left off when the third volume appeared in 1960. “I only got up through 1936, the end of FDR’s first term,” Schlesinger points out. “I’ve got a good ways to go.”

Writing about Roosevelt’s additional three terms should manage to keep Schlesinger busy. Hopefully, it will also make him feel content with his contribution to our understanding of twentieth-century American political history. “I feel that I should have accomplished much more in these eighty years than I’ve done, there are more books I should have written,” Schlesinger notes ruefully. “The working title of my memoirs is Unfinished Business,” Schlesinger continues, with a laugh. At the age of eighty-one, Schlesinger has finally been persuaded to write his memoirs, a process he considers “a lot of fun.” “I only hope it’s as fascinating to other people as it is to me,” he says.

Though Schlesinger is characteristically self-deprecating about his career, historian Alan Brinkley wrote that Arthur Schlesinger is one of the most important voices in the historical profession, “not simply because he possesses a literary grace that few American scholars can match,” but also because “he is willing to argue that the search for an understanding of the past is not simply an aesthetic exercise but a path to the understanding of our own time.”

By Sara E. Wilson