I NEVER EXPECTED to write a memoir. But age puts one in a contemplative mood, and the onset of the millennium induces reconsiderations of a traumatic century. I have lived through interesting times and had the luck of knowing some interesting people. And I concluded that if I were ever to do a memoir, I had better do it while I can still remember anything.
This volume covers the first half of the twentieth centuryinitially through the eyes of my parents, for I didn’t make the scene till the century was seventeen years old; thereafter through my own eyes and memories. Of course, little is more treacherous than memory. Can one always distinguish between what one personally remembers and what one is later told? or is led to imagine? Jean Negulesco, the painter and film director, called his memoir Things I Did . . . and Things I Think I Did. The generic title for all memoirs should be Things I Remember . . . and Things I Think I Remember.
The past is, alas, beyond retrieval. Wordsworth had it right in the Tintern Abbey poem: “I cannot paint / What then I was.” And what one becomes reconstructs what one was. Stephen Dedalus muses on June 16, 1904, to the Quaker librarian: “In the future, the sister of the past, I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which I shall be.” One can only draw so much from the murky wells of memory. Autobiography in the end is an interrogation of the past by the present.
It is not always clear, moreover, which counts more in later lifethe reality or the recollection. In 1850 Charles Francis Adams took his twelve-year-old son by railway coach and steamboat from Boston to Washington. Sixty years later, in the greatest of American autobiographies, Henry Adams described the journeyat least, he quickly added, the journey as he remembered it: “The actual journey may have been quite different, but the actual journey has no interest for education. The memory was all that mattered.” This remains the autobiographer’s dilemma.
As a historian, I well know the fallibility of memory. I remember lunching one day with Dean Acheson when he was writing his superb memoir, Present at the Creation. He seemed more than usually wrathful. “I had a most disconcerting morning,” he said, calling urgently for a dry martini. “I was writing about the decision in 1941 to freeze Japanese assets in the United States”the decision that, we now know, led the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. “I have the most vivid memory of the meeting in President Roosevelt’s office. The President was sitting at his desk; Cordell Hull [the secretary of state] was sitting opposite him; I was in a chair by the Secretary’s side. I can close my eyes and see the scene,” he said, closing his eyes. “But my damned secretary, Miss Evans, checked the record and found that Mr. Hull had the flu and was off in White Sulphur Springs recuperating. He wasn’t at the meeting at all. I can’t believe it.” Free-wheeling raconteursand Acheson was one of the bestimprove their tales until telling reorganizes reality. Conscientious memoiristsand Acheson was one of the bestcheck the record. As a historian, I felt a professional obligation to supplement and rectify memory by recourse to documents. I have tried in effect to write a biography of myself as if I were writing a biography of someone else.
I have diaries and aides-mémoires kept intermittently over the long years (how I wish I had kept them more faithfully). My mother, Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger, preserved letters and memorabilia going back to my childhood. Both my mother and Marian Cannon Schlesinger, my first wife, saved letters written from overseas during the Second World War. A succession of expert secretariesJulie Jeppson Ludwig at Harvard in the 1950s, Gretchen Stewart in Washington and New York in the 1960s, Dianne Sikorski, Mary Chifriller, Julia Galea, in later yearsmaintained orderly files, most of which are now in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. I have benefited from the cooperation of other libraries holding papers of people with whom I corresponded. Since I have written about some events in other connections, I have not hesitated on occasion to recycle past recollections for this memoir.
And as a historian I am tempted to widen the focus and interweave the life with the times in some reasonable, melodious and candid balance. Some may find the division into decades arbitrary; indeed, I find such division hard to justify on theoretical grounds. Yet, practically speaking, who can deny that the Twenties in the United States were different from the Thirties or the Fifties from the Sixties? Decades, like generations, oftenn have, or acquire, identities of their own.
For the author, the great enticement of memoirs, I suppose, is the voyage of self-discovery. After aaaaall, as Gibbon said in his autobiography, “No one is so well qualified as myself to describe the series of my thoughts and actions.” The voyage, however, never reaches its destination. In the end, no one can really know oneselfor anyone else either.
Still, as Mark Twain once wrote to William Dean Howells, “An autobiography is the truest of all books, for while it inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth is there, between the lines.” ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR.
Copyright © 2000 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.