Arthur Schlesinger Jr. carved out a unique role for himself in American life. The author of acclaimed works of award-winning American history and biography (including two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards), he also enthusiastically embraced the role of friend and confidant to significant movers and shakers on the national political stage. He was one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action and a speechwriter and advisor to presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, but he is probably best known for his role as a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy.
Schlesinger was also a prolific writer of letters—around 35,000—whose extraordinarily wide range of correspondents included fellow intellectuals, literary figures and many high government officials, such as his longtime friends Hubert Humphrey and Henry Kissinger. On the lighter side, he was glad to answer the questioner who wanted to know why he preferred bow ties and to oblige another who wanted him to draw a sketch of himself. His sons, Andrew and Stephen, have gone through this treasure trove to select the letters that best articulated his essential beliefs and captured the movement of his times. The result is the thoroughly engaging and enlightening The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., most of which have never before been seen by the public.
It is fascinating to read of Schlesinger’s relationships and perceptions. In 1946, at a dinner at influential columnist Joseph Alsop’s home, he met John F. Kennedy, then a member of the House of Representatives. “Kennedy seemed sincere and not unintelligent, but kind of on the conservative side,” he reported to his parents. By 1955, when Kennedy was in the Senate, he and Schlesinger had become friends, and Kennedy asked the historian to read his rough manuscript for Profiles in Courage and be “ruthlessly frank in giving me your criticism, comments and suggestions”—which Schlesinger was.
Politicians occasionally asked for his advice, and he would help if he could. At the same time he would often presumptuously send them unsolicited suggestions, sometimes at great length. He was especially concerned, for example, with the way Kennedy and Stevenson dealt with the issue of civil rights, a subject he felt passionately about.
Schlesinger did not shy away from disagreement with his correspondents. He and close friend John Kenneth Galbraith parted ways on the presidential race in 1980. Galbraith supported President Carter, while Schlesinger, who was disappointed with Carter’s first-term performance, backed independent John Anderson. Schlesinger wrote to Galbraith: “I really don’t understand why you are so agitated about Reagan. . . . He served two terms as governor of California and, as far as I know, did nothing very much except to flow with the tide. He is an accommodator, not an ideologue.”
I enthusiastically recommend this window into the world of a prominent historian who was also, in more than one way, a man of letters.