Arthur Schlesinger Jr: William W. Freehling Remembers
A week or two ago I had the honor of spending some time with William W. Freehling, the author of The Road To Disunion, Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861. We got to talking about the role of public historians and the true loss America had suffered with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s death. The conversation was so interesting that I asked Professor Freehling to write his thoughts down and luckily for all of us, he obliged. The Road To Disunion hasn’t actually published yet, I just couldn’t hold this post for a month. I have a feeling though, that we will be hearing more from Professor Freehling in the future!
From a personal standpoint, I grieved at Arthur’s death especially when I was preparing to send him my The Road To Disunion, Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861. Arthur’s influence on this new Oxford book, as on everything I have written, was major. That may seem strange, for this beloved teacher has little influenced my interpretations. I disagree with the thrust of almost everything he wrote about antebellum America. I also knew him very briefly and only long ago, back in the late 1950s, when he was directing my undergraduate honors thesis (senior Harvard professors used to do those things!).
But Arthur then impressed on me his some of his gospels: That academic historians must write not only for each other but also for the general public; that citizens’ sophisticated awareness of their history is crucial to enlightened republics: that we must spin stories about colorful leaders, places, and confrontations and not settle for only abstruse analysis; and that our true tales must bear on matters that remain important in our own times. Arthur did NOT mean that public history must be only about recent events that the public has lived thru; he would cringe at that late perversion of his meaning. He wished me god speed in bringing 19th century history alive to folks a century and more later, for he held that the great public spectacles of our past have enduring relevance to understandings of our own time. So I have tried to write my tale of the secession epic. The twin morals of this little personal story are that graduate schools in history must place far more emphasis on the art of writing history–and that Harvard needs to recapture its once great tradition of the highest ranking professors directing “lowly” undergraduates’’ theses. Contempt for intimate teaching of undergraduates is all too like disregard of writing for the general public. For me, Arthur will always stand for a finer way to be a scholarly citizen.
For more on this topic check out Eric Rauchway’s piece in The New Republic. Rauchway writes, “When Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, eulogized the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. this month, he claimed there are now no longer any historians who write about the past as if it mattered to us today.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr: In Memory
Below Purdy, Publicity Director, remembers Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
The death of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. the other day leaves me feeling this world of our is more than a bit diminished with his passing. I cannot claim to have known him well, but our paths did cross back in 1998 when I had almost killed him accidentally in front of the Union Square Barnes and Noble. I had recently returned to OUP after a 9 month stint at WH Freeman Books. One of my publicity campaigns in the Fall consisted of setting up a signing at the Union Square B&N here in NYC for the authors of The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century. B&N Union Square is notoriously difficult to book for University Press authors and event organizers there had already taken a pass on my pitch for a discussion/signing. Then one of the authors had a great idea to have his friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr. introduce and comment at the event. I was skeptical because I never thought Schlesinger would accept our invite to participate. Much to my surprise, and to organizers at B&N at the time, Schlesinger did accept and they were now more than eager to book the discussion/signing. A date and time was agreed on. A format was outlined. Two days before the actual event I got an email in which Schlesinger expressed his regret that he’d have to bow out of the event as he was obligated to attend an awards dinner in his honor on the same night.
I panicked. B&N would be furious and accuse me of lying about Schlesinger’s participation just to secure the event. I was sure they would never book another OUP author for a signing event in any of their stores in the US. I pleaded with the authors to find another marquis name to replace Schlesinger and confessed that without him the event would likely be canceled. After a bit of arm twisting Schlesinger agreed to come to the event, introduce the authors, and then slip out quietly. He would need a car waiting for him to take him to the Awards ceremony. The event was salvaged.
When Schlesinger arrived I was shocked by his diminutive stature. I had expected him to the giant he was in my mind. He looked, as my mother would have noted, “like you could knock him over with a whisper.” As he strode to the stage, however, he captured the attention of everyone in the event area. Niceties were exchanged. The B&N event manager introduced the participants and Schlesinger then gave a glowing intro to the authors. Instead of leaving right away he stayed on the stage listening to his friends discuss Kennedy’s Presidency. Occasionally he’d correct them, or make a salient point. I grew nervous as he ignored my many attempts to let him know his car was waiting to take him to his next event. He was so engrossed in the discussion I had to interrupt the event to get him off the stage and on to his event. I thanked him profusely as I was ushered him to the car. And then it happened, in my nervousness to keep him on schedule I opened the back door and gently pushed him into the back seat, only his head didn’t quite clear the roof. There was a dull thud as his head smacked into the car, followed by a slow, low “oooouch.”
Schlesinger assured me he was alright and did not have a concussion. His small body disappeared into the darkness of the back seat, the door closed and the car sped away from the curb and into city traffic. I stood on the curb a little concerned, I had almost killed a great historian and the former “Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy”, what would my mother say about that?