Arthur Schlesinger Jr. played a unique role in American life. The author of many acclaimed works of American history and biography (his accolades included two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, the Francis Parkman Prize and the Frederic Bancroft Prize), he also enthusiastically embraced the role of friend and confidant to significant movers and shakers on the national political scene. He was a speechwriter and adviser to presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and is probably best known for his position as a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy.
Schlesinger was also a prolific letter writer whose wide range of correspondents included fellow intellectuals, literary figures, government officials, Hollywood celebrities and fellow citizens who agreed or disagreed with his views on history or current events. His sons, Andrew and Stephen, have gone through this treasure trove of about 35,000 letters, most of them never before seen by the public, to compile The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. As editors of this new collection, the brothers selected letters “that best articulate his essential beliefs and reflected the movement of the times,” and which highlight that the “abiding theme of his correspondence over a 60-year period is his preoccupation with liberalism and its prospects.”
During a recent book tour stop in Nashville, Andrew and Stephen Schlesinger answered questions from BookPage about the mammoth task of compiling their father’s letters—and what readers can learn from them.
BookPage: Although your father regarded liberalism as a “fighting faith,” in these elegantly written letters there is a tone of respect and candor, reasonableness and civility, even with those with whom he strongly disagreed. Would you speak about the tone of the letters?
Stephen Schlesinger: It’s remarkable. He wrote to Adlai Stevenson suggesting that he should have a more appropriate way of addressing public forums, keeping his thoughts short and clear. He does this to a lot of people he admired. He’s very frank with them, like the remarks he made to John F. Kennedy about Profiles in Courage. Kennedy wanted him to be “ruthless” in his criticism.
BookPage: And he was.
Andrew Schlesinger: He was a college professor accustomed to working with graduate students, and Kennedy appreciated that.
Stephen: It was remarkable that he could have been so frank in [a] letter he wrote to Stevenson before his second nomination in 1956, [but] Stevenson kept him on.
Andrew: His arguments were reasonable. They made sense. For many people he was the liberal conscience.
Stephen: A lot of the candidates wanted his approval. Whether it was Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton, they’re all there trying to get support from him—whether it be verbal or a letter—something that would give them validation with the liberal constituency at large.
BookPage: The letters demonstrate your father’s marvelous gift for friendship with such a wide range of people. Would you give us some insight into this quality?
Andrew: A lot of the people he met during World War II are the same characters who reappear years later. They have authority, which people develop over time. Sometimes he has great difficulties with these friendships.
Stephen: One of the great calamities of this country was the Vietnam War. Three of the people he had considered close personal friends—Hubert Humphrey, Joseph Alsop (columnist), and Henry Kissinger, who had been his colleague at Harvard—he broke with all of them. He was unvarnished in his criticism of all of them and his letters show that. He felt so profoundly about this. In a strange sort of way, I think he thought he was doing them a favor. He writes these letters in each case to continue the argument, to be more persuasive about our involvement in this terrible war, to have an impact on their thinking. And, of course, all of them are committed to the war, so they brush him off. But, I felt that the letters were very eloquent and straightforward—rather persuasive from the standpoint of practicality. As Andy said, he had this passion throughout his life all related to this liberal theme. He was willing to take on his friends. He was willing to be, in a sense, a lightning rod for criticism because he firmly thought this was right. He’s very consistent.
Andrew: He’s a great American patriot. He thought it was his job to protect America, to push this liberal agenda of affirmative government.
Stephen: He was attracted to talent . . . people in their younger years who were going to amount to something when they were older. They continued to pop up in his life.
BookPage: Geoffrey C. Ward has written of this collection of letters, “No one who wants to understand how it was to live through the second half of the 20th century in America should miss it.”
Stephen: I think it’s fair to say this book is a mini-history of the liberal movement over 60 years. It’s a reflection of the many challenges the liberal community faced in all these difficult decades.
BookPage: The collection is so well annotated, so good at identifying personalities and events.
Andrew: We published the (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) Journals several years ago and we didn’t get the chance to annotate. We had three months to prepare for publication. So this was a great opportunity to identify all those people. Now you can read Journals as a companion volume to the letters.
BookPage: How was your father able to be as productive as he was, as a brilliant writer and renowned historian, among other things, and remain such a prolific letter writer? You mention letters as his “paramount means of communication.” But there are only so many hours in each day. Was he very well organized and where did letter writing rank in his priorities?
Stephen: He did have very good secretaries. But, you’re right. And he was not only doing that [the letters], he was doing 17 books. He was doing eight or 10 letters a week. He was a movie reviewer, believe it or not. He was teaching, a full-time faculty position, dealing with students [and] out on lecture tours. He was writing speeches for politicians. He was a great socializing person. He hosted dinner parties. He had animal energy, that’s what he had.
Andrew: He would work night and day. If he was at home, after dinner he would go to his typewriter or later, his word processor. He would get up early in the morning. He was a very hard worker. He was well organized up until the end.
Stephen: What hampered him at the end was that he had Parkinson’s disease.
BookPage: I was impressed that your father never talks down to people who are not public figures—whether the subject is why does he wear bow ties or [if he] is asked to draw a sketch of himself.
Stephen: We carefully wanted to make sure that we included letters to people who were not public figures—fans, critics, people who had a grudge—just to show he treated people with equal respect.
Andrew: He felt that if someone took the time to write him a letter, he should respond.
BookPage: Your father was different from Henry Adams—quite a different person, different era and issues—but as I was reading your father’s letters, I was reminded of Henry Adams’ letters. Your father mentioned Adams many times in the essays in his book, The Cycles of American History. I felt that your father’s letters had some of the qualities of Adams’s letters and that they would endure.
Andrew: My father would be glad to hear that. Henry Adams was one of his great American heroes.
Stephen: My father even wrote a play based on the Adams novel, Democracy. The dynamo image that Adams talked about [in The Education of Henry Adams] was recurrent in what he talked about—the speeding up of life because of technology was something that very much caught his eye.
BookPage: I was impressed by his letter to the president of Little, Brown—his own publisher. He came back from Europe after World War II and urged his publisher (of his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson) to publish George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But because a key editor, who turned out to be a faithful follower of the Communist Party, opposed, Little, Brown does not publish the book. Your father is outraged at this decision. The book is picked up by another company and is published to great acclaim.
Stephen: My father wrote a piece for Life magazine in 1946 about the Communist Party. He became a leader in the Americans for Democratic Action, a leading anti-communist group, along with John Kenneth Galbraith, Eleanor Roosevelt and other luminaries. But he was one of the key leaders, and he took a lot of fire from both the right and the left because of what he was doing.
Andrew: Rebecca West on the right and Lillian Hellman on the left. Remember—in 1945 the Communists were trying to penetrate other organizations. He helped to found the ADA to confront the popular front that made liberals look bad in America.
Stephen: He wrote the book The Vital Center, [where he attacked] left-wing totalitarianism and fascism on the right: communism on the one side and fascism on the other. Even as he opposed the Communist Party, he didn’t feel that it should be outlawed. He was also persistent about writing letters to Harvard University about not banning speakers because he felt that violated free speech on campus.
BookPage: You knew your father and his work very well. Were there any surprises for you as you worked with his letters?
Stephen: I didn’t know that Groucho Marx had sent him a letter. [It praised a Schlesinger book he had read.]
Andrew: And Sammy Davis Jr. The four or five pages he wrote to Kennedy about Profiles in Courage . . . for me, it was the totality of the letters, his dedication to the promotion of liberalism. There was the letter that our father wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination.
Stephen: There was the letter he wrote to John Kenneth Galbraith, his best friend, late in Galbraith’s life. There is a lot of humor in the letters as well as serious commentary.
BookPage: In a letter your father writes, “Through the years, [Reinhold] Niebuhr more than anyone else I have known has served as the model of a really great man.”
Andrew: He was not a religious man. But he saw a line between what Niebuhr preached and what Kennedy did. You have got to act. Everybody has to stand up against evil.
Stephen: Until he met Niebuhr, I don’t think he really understood the nature of sin in terms of human nature.
BookPage: Your father was good at proposing political strategy. Did he ever consider running for office himself?
Stephen: Not that we know of. He was an activist. He was an historian. He had written books about [Andrew] Jackson and FDR, he had worked for Adlai Stevenson, so when the Kennedy years came, he had some ideas about political strategy. He loved politics. He defined his life every four years by the cycle of democratic conventions. From 1948 on, he was at almost every democratic convention.