The National Catholic Review

During World War II, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. held a modest position in Elmer Davis’s Office of War Information. One of his few thrills was ghostwriting low-level messages for President Roosevelt. Schlesinger recollects My first success was a presidential endorsement of Universal Bible Sundayodd in view of my disrespect for organized religion.

Schlesinger, one of our most distinguished American historians, a noted public intellectual, member in and chronicler of the Kennedy administration, offers a delightfully readable autobiography through his first 33 yearsand we are promised the rest in due course. The memoir is both charming and chummycharming as an elegant recollection of so many of the issues and actors of the 1930’s and the War; chummy in that more than name-dropping, it is into nickname-dropping. Wouldn’t one be charmed to be chummy with Sam (Samuel Eliot) Morrison, Benny (Bernard) DeVoto, Archie (Archibald) MacLeish and so on!

Ideologically, Schlesinger is a classical, old-fashioned liberal. His great initial publishing success, The Age of Jackson, replicated what was said of the outstanding 19th-century historian (and distant relation) George Bancroft’s multi-volume History of the United States: every volume voted for Jackson. So, Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson voted for F.D.R. (Schlesinger cheerfully admits that intent.) As an old-fashioned liberal man-on-the-left, Schlesinger has had a consistent and determined anti-Communist record. If there are villains in this history, they tend to be fellow travelers who sold their minds to Stalinist pipe dreams and propaganda. Conservatives, Republicans by and large, are not exactly wicked but tend to be on the wrong side of the quarrel between Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle’s Bank of the United States or F.D.R.’s battle with big business.

Schlesinger would also seem to fit the type of the classic academicshould one specify Harvard?liberal in his expressed disrespect for and disinterest in organized religion, which is a minor theme in these reminiscences. Schlesinger’s attitude toward religion comes out at various moments like the one cited above, but his intellectual relation to religion is paradoxical. His first publication, a byproduct of undergraduate research, was on Orestes Brownson, the notable 19th-century Catholic convert. His mentor for the project was Perry Miller, the great revisionist historian of Puritanism. (Miller, despite his favorable take on the Puritans, was a determined atheist.) In the prewar years Schlesinger was profoundly influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr. The doctrine of original sin so powerfully preached in Niebuhr’s examination of the ironies of American history attracted the young historian, who could never believe in utopianismCommunist-style or otherwise. But if Schlesinger appreciated sin, he evidently did not go for biblical salvation. A final paradox in his relation to religion may well be his close association with the first American president for whom religious affiliation was a nagging concern. We shall wait for the next volume on that issue.

In 1940 Schlesinger accompanied Benny DeVoto on a cross-country auto trek. DeVoto was working on his classic, The Year of Decision, 1846, and was determined to visit the western sites that were the setting of that pivotal year. (The Mexican War, 1846-48, was the first clear expression of the creed of Manifest Destiny.) In Coeur d’Alene, Ida., they ran across an evangelical camp meeting. A penitent woman sinner approached Schlesinger. I’m interested in you. What are you doing to save your soul? Come to Jesus! I have an intuition that you are a college man. You are an intellectual mess. Schlesinger wrote to his parents, I have rarely seen so disgusting a spectacle. One need not be an enthusiast for evangelical camp meetings to wonder whether the American historian Schlesinger missed something deep about that experience and its meaning in America.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. was himself a very distinguished historian. Perhaps his most significant contribution is to be found in The Rise of the City (reprinted by Ohio University Press in 1999). Schlesinger Sr. came of age as a historian when Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis was the reigning mythos for the American experience. Turner held that it was the open freedom of the always westward frontier that defined America. The Rise of the City sought to counter Turner, demonstrating that it was the city with its clash of classes and hard-knuckle politics that was the engine of American experience. Schlesinger Jr. followed Schlesinger Sr. in The Age of Jackson. The standard interpretation of Jacksonianism had been that it represented the invasion of the rural frontier into the refined politics of the Virginia and Boston elites. Schlesinger Jr. argued against that view: Jacksonian democracy [was]...in large part a reasoned reform program, rather than an intemperate and violent thrust of the West into national politics. He goes on to assert that the principal concerns of Jacksonianism were Eastern economic ones, not excesses from the Wild West.

The Schlesingers may well be correct about the dominance of the city and the East over the frontier and the West. But what, then, should one make of the frontier? Schlesinger Jr.’s confrontation in Coeur d’Alene and its intemperate evangelicals was, I would conjecture, a confrontation at and with the frontier. From the standpoint of Eastern-city-intellectual-liberal culture, that sort of stuff is just wacky and disgusting. Yet there is something in the American experience that hankers for frontiers, the beyond, the unknown that is full of fear, wonder and egregious hope. One may reject religion in favor of reasoned sobriety, but to understand America something better than disrespect for wild frontiers is, I think, necessary.

Dennis OBrien is president emeritus of the University of Rochester in New York.