01 March 2007

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. 1917-2007

I think I was about 23 years old at the time. Just out of college and still trying to decide what to do with my life. Actually, I knew what I wanted to do—I wanted to be a historian…..yes, a historian. But I still lacked both the self-confidence and desire that one needs to make that long-term PhD commitment.

Anyway, Arthur Schlesinger had just published a new biography on Robert Kennedy—and I was excited. Even though I had little money (I don’t think I had a job at the time), I immediately went out and bought a hardcover copy—1066 pages in all.

While Robert Kennedy was my primary interest, I was also captivated by Arthur Schlesinger, the historian. While becoming a real historian remained a fantasy for me, at least I had a role model. Schlesinger was not only a historian, but he was a certified, unabashed liberal who had worked in the Kennedy White House. I could pattern my life after this guy. Hell, he might have even been a New York Mets fan!

One day, while absorbing parts of those 1066 pages, I decided it would be nice to get Schlesinger to autograph the book. I knew I couldn’t go to his office in New York City—so I wrote him a letter. I said I admired his work (especially this book), and I would really appreciate an autograph. I wasn’t expecting a reply.

Then, about three weeks later, I received a small envelope from “The City University of New York.” Inside was neatly folded, small piece of stationary addressed to me with the following quote and signature:

”I have no expectation that any man will read history aright who thinks that what was done in a remote age, by men whose names have resounded far, has any deeper sense that what he is doing to-day.” --Emerson

With best wishes

Arthur M. Schlesinger

I was stunned….happy…ecstatic. That piece of paper remains one of my most cherished possessions. A few years later I had it laminated and it still graces the pages of that RFK biography. I won’t be so dramatic as to say Schlesinger’s response inspired me to become a historian—but I think it might have helped just a little.

I actually met him about fifteen years later at a history conference. He was just as I had expected—wearing his little bowtie and gleefully talking about FDR’s foreign policy. I swear, when Schlesinger talked about his hero FDR--the room got brighter, the sun came out, and smiles appeared on people’s faces. I think history was fun for Arthur Schlesinger. I think he enjoyed it and relished the opportunity to teach it to others.

Dr. Schlesinger passed away last evening. He will be missed.


Anonymous said...

What a lovely story . . . just goes to show how much we owe to those who came before us . . . and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was certainly one upon whose shoulders we are honored to stand.

Anonymous said...

A very nice piece of writing, just the sort of thing I have come to expect--and receive--from this blog. I, too, cut my teeth as an aspiring historian on Schlesinger's writings, starting with "The Age of Jackson," still a book worth reading. Keep up the good work.

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