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.”