Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917 - 1950

A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917 - 1950

by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

See All Formats & Editions

As a preeminent historian of our time, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., continues in his many books and articles to show Americans who we are as a nation, to explain our past, and to illuminate possibilities for the future. But here, in the first volume of his long-awaited memoirs, he turns his acute historian's eye on his own past. In the elegant and witty language of


As a preeminent historian of our time, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., continues in his many books and articles to show Americans who we are as a nation, to explain our past, and to illuminate possibilities for the future. But here, in the first volume of his long-awaited memoirs, he turns his acute historian's eye on his own past. In the elegant and witty language of one of our most readable writers, Schlesinger artfully reconstructs a twentieth-century life.
Schlesinger's personal story is ultimately the captivating history of America coming into its own as a world power. It includes a fondly remembered childhood in the Midwest; life in America of the twenties; student days at Harvard, lived in the shadow of a distinguished father; Cambridge University in England in the twilight year between the Munich Pact and the start of World War II; the bitter debate in the United States in the months before Pearl Harbor; a stint overseas with the Office of Strategic Services; the fate of postwar liberalism, under attack from right and left; the origins of The Vital Center. Here is a dramatic evocation of the struggles, the questions, the paradoxes, and the triumphs that shaped our era.
Interweaving personal and national stories, Schlesinger conjures up the colorful details of everyday life, offering readers a rare and revealing window on both the private world of a notable American writer and the innocent beginnings of the American century. A LIFE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: INNOCENT BEGINNINGS, 1917—1950 is destined to become a classic.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"For more than fifty years, Arthur Schlesinger has been at the vital center of our public life. He has not only chronicled American history, he has helped to define it—as the fighting intellectual of Americans for Democratic Action, adviser to Adlai Stevenson, special assistant to President Kennedy. . .What a remarkable life he has lived; what wonderful books he has written."—President Bill Clinton, on the occasion of awarding the 1998 National Humanities Medal

"A Fascinating and generous account of a life tuned to the music of history." Kirkus Reviews

"a historian's dance to the music of time." Time Magazine

"His book, like Mr. Schlesinger himself, wears a bowtie. It is the competent, neat and natty work of an accomplished and contented man." The New York Times

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Schlesinger's memoir covers the first 33 years of a life spent as a public thinker and historian. Born into a world of intellectual privilege, Schlesinger was exposed from his earliest years to literature and, through his father's work as a historian, to scholarship. The author recounts how his education at an elite prep school, a year-long trip around the world, and then at Harvard and Cambridge. Drawn to American history, Schlesinger wrote on Orestes Brownson and Andrew Jackson, and spent his war years as a political analyst for the OSS. Scattered through the chronology are ruminations on fads in historical interpretation, movies as the American art form, the pleasures of the martini and many other side points of interest and charm. Schlesinger recounts his interactions with an impressive array of personalities eminent in politics, academia and society; the scores of character sketches he furnishes are, in nearly all instances, sympathetic and affectionate. For Schlesinger, his personal experience, like American history, has been marked by, as Joyce said in Finnegan's Wake, a "commodius vicus of recirculation." He explains how people he met early in his career turn up again in a later era, just as a school of historical interpretation will fall out of favor only to be rediscovered by the next generation of historians. Schlesinger's personal and intellectual life validates his theory of circularity, except in one key respect: the author started as an anticommunist, liberal New Dealer, and he has adhered to these convictions ever since. The engaging and sophisticated volume explains how these principles were acquired and why they continue to command Schlesinger's assent. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The first of two volumes, this memoir by one of the best-known liberal historians of the 20th century traces Schlesinger's life from his very early years in the Midwest through the formative influences of his well-educated parents and his privileged education and travel. As one would expect, the early chapters contain quite a few vague reminiscences and third-party accounts, plus a good deal of pure sentimentality. But they serve the purpose of beginning to show a human side behind the intellectual surface, something the author accomplishes throughout the memoir. The work hits its stride as Schlesinger describes the five years following World War II, the emergence of the Cold War, and his rise as an active public intellectual; it is particularly strong in explaining the development of Schlesinger's liberal political persuasion. Schlesinger writes with extremely good humor, often directed at himself, but also shares his well-known opinions about world and national affairs, making the book anything but dull. An excellent addition to most libraries.--Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
New Yorker
With a fine historian's sense of the past, Schlesinger imbues every aspect of the first volume of his memoirs with vitality, telling readers, most of them, inevitably, younger than he, just what they need to know —the everyday details (such as what people wore and what things cost) or, in the case of the intellectual celebrities who appear, why their work matters....and he shrewdly point out the parallels between an era's arguments over historical interpretation and its political issues, as in his discussion of recent disputes over when the Allies became aware of the Holocaust.
Richard Bernstein
. . . a sprightly, straightforward account of the first third of an active and charmed life, one lived virtually from the beginning in easy intimacy with the American elite, intellectual and political, as well as with the central debates of the era.
New York Times Magazine
Jon Meacham
Schlessinger's memoir, the first of two projected volumes, captures a milieu that is fast receding into the shadows—a world in which politics and the life of the mind were not incompatible, and the American Century was fueled by big ideas, epic events and not a few martinis..."History," Schlessinger concludes, "is indeed an argument without end, That is why it is so much fun." So is this book.
Kirkus Reviews
An appealing memoir by a fine historian who is mercifully free of the besetting sin of the intellectual—the need always to be right. Schlesinger's strength as a historian is his ability to unite intellectual and political history, and the strength of this autobiography is the way it unites these elements of his own life and times. The three great issues of this period were the conflict between isolationism and interventionism before WWII, the conflict with Nazism, and the more enduring battle with Communism. He maintains that no conflict in his lifetime tore apart friendships and families more than the first, but he reminds us, too, of just how tenuous our victory over totalitarianism was. By the end of 1940, only a dozen democracies were left on the planet. Since this account covers only the first 33 years of Schlesinger's life, his role in all these battles was necessarily a minor one, but he played an honorable part in all of them and avoided what he calls "the fatal error of mistaking ideology for reality." He gained increasing recognition during the period, culminating in a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jackson (1945), but he seldom allows himself to be unduly impressed: referring to his customary choice of neckwear, he argues that "it is impossible, or at least it requires extreme agility, to spill anything on a bow tie." Although he describes himself as a New Dealer, unreconstructed and unrepentant, he is notably even-handed and moderate in his judgments, writing of liberalism that "it often tends to be a solemn creed, or, when not solemn, sentimental, or, too often, both." A fascinating and generous account of a life tuned to the music of history.Book-of-the-MonthClub/History Book Club selection Sinclair, Andrew DYLAN THE BARD: A Life of Dylan Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's (256 pp.) Nov. 2000

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt


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 century—initially 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 life—the 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 journey—at 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 raconteurs—and Acheson was one of the best—improve their tales until telling reorganizes reality. Conscientious memoirists—and Acheson was one of the best—check 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 secretaries—Julie 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 years—maintained 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 oneself—or 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.

Meet the Author

ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR., the author of sixteen books, was a renowned historian and social critic. He twice won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1946 for The Age of Jackson and in 1966 for A Thousand Days. He was also the winner of the National Book Award for both A Thousand Days and Robert Kennedy and His Times (1979). In 1998 he was awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews