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It's Finally Time: The Age of Schlesinger

After years of weighing in on politics, the historian writes his own story.

November 16, 2000|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — It's a Saturday, around noon, and the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. is walking to work. He leaves the book- and art-filled apartment overlooking the East River that he shares with his wife, walks across a garden courtyard, then climbs a flight of stairs on the other side and opens the door to a small apartment that serves as his office: three rooms lined with books and more books piled on the floor in each room--tumbling stacks that are more likely to topple onto other books than bare floor.

Behind his desk is an oil portrait of his father, the distinguished, if not much remembered, historian Arthur Schlesinger (the younger Schlesinger wasn't originally designated as a junior but re-christened himself one). On the same wall is a watercolor of FDR, the focus of Schlesinger's magisterial but incomplete "The Age of Roosevelt," which he stopped writing after three volumes when he went to work in John F. Kennedy's White House in 1961. Nearby is an autographed photograph of Robert Kennedy (to "my fellow liberal," it says), whom Schlesinger campaigned with in 1968 until the morning of the day that the candidate was killed in Los Angeles. There is also a snapshot of his wife, Alexandra (19 years Schlesinger's junior and about a foot taller), in a bathing suit.

Schlesinger apologizes for the clutter but explains that he's been too busy to tidy up. At 83, Schlesinger could be excused for taking it easy. He has, after all, written 16 books, won two Pulitzer Prizes and been an active and eager participant in many of the political battles of the last six decades.

"My only regret is the amount of time I spent addressing small--though they seemed large at the time--controversies, when I should have been writing books," Schlesinger says. "I got diverted from writing by the compulsion to respond to passing circumstances. I've written hundreds of thousands of words in newspapers and magazines that I could have poured into books, and I would have been more satisfied with my life. I feel a great frustration. I should have written more books. I would have like to have tried writing a novel."

As one of the last great figures from the golden age of American intellectuals (that steamship era of stately print punditry before the hurricane of television blowhards), Schlesinger seems as vigorous and engaged as ever. Not to mention busy. "I wish to hell I could slow down," he says. "The last week has been hell. It's a great misconception that age brings simplicity; all it does is multiply your obligations."

There are, as always, opinions to expound, important matters of state to assay in his trenchant style, as well as other members of the literati to pal around with. "Norman's in town," Schlesinger's wife tells him, and she means Mailer. "I was talking to Gore at the opening . . ., " Schlesinger says, and he means Vidal.

Schlesinger was already at work this morning when a visitor diverted him once more to talk about the past--his own, for a change. The historian, it turns out, has finally written his own history, the first of two projected volumes: "A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950" (Houghton Mifflin).

"I never expected to write a memoir," he writes. "But age puts one in a contemplative mood, and the onset of the millennium induces reconsiderations of a traumatic century. I have lived through interesting times and had the luck of knowing some interesting people. And I concluded that if I were ever to do a memoir, I had better do it while I can still remember anything." Schlesinger's vivid recounting has won excellent reviews.

"His autobiography, skillfully interweaving the personal and the historical, is elegantly simple and marvelously clear," said the Economist. "Complex thoughts are set forth with a lucidity that conceals the depth of the intellectual analysis. Wit, humor and the resources of a natural storyteller sweep the reader along."

"A rich, spirited performance," added Time. "Even his smugness has a certain hilarious pungency."

For Schlesinger, the history of his era has not been an abstraction, some dead insect trapped in amber, but a living, unpredictable thing fluttering around the house and landing on his nose more than once. Not only was Schlesinger around for the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, the Civil Rights struggle, Vietnam and Watergate, but he was often a fighter in the fray, and as one of the leading historians of the last half century, an influential voice in how those events have been interpreted and remembered.

"William James said 'Temperament determines philosophy,' " Schlesinger says. "I'm an activist. You learn a lot from getting involved."

Activist Upbringing, Intellectual Youth

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