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Revered Intellectual, Historian Schlesinger Dies at 89

In 1956, then 39-year-old Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. ’38 stood in front of the 300 students who had packed themselves into a small Harvard lecture hall to attend the first lecture of “History 169,” Schlesinger’s popular course on American intellectual history.

The lion of liberal causes—a Pulitzer prize winner before his 30th birthday—surveyed the audience.

“Let’s all petition for a bigger room,” Schlesinger dead-panned, according to a Crimson article from that year.

He spent his life doing just that.

Until his death two days ago, Schlesinger, a two-time Pulitzer prize winner, author of over two dozen works on American politics and history, and a chief political advisor to John F. Kennedy ’40, moved from one big room to the next, rising from his Thayer dorm to occupy an elite office in the nation’s capitol.

He died Wednesday night after suffering a heart attack during dinner with his family in Manhattan, N.Y. He was 89.

“This is an immense loss for everyone who enjoys reading history,” David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government, said.

In a statement, President-elect Drew G. Faust described Schlesinger as a “great friend to Harvard.”

“I will miss his sharp intelligence, his delightful wit, and his broad understanding of times past and present,” Faust said of her fellow historian.

‘A SUNNY TIME’

Born in Columbus, Ohio on March 15, 1917, Schlesinger left the mid-west for Cambridge at the age of seven, when his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., also a leading American historian, joined the faculty at Harvard.

He wrote in a 2000 memoir that his childhood spent living in the shadow of Radcliffe Yard (where the Schlesinger Library named for Schlesinger, Sr. and his wife Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger now stands) was “a generally sunny time,” occupied by the exchange of letters with prominent Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken and his parents’ Sunday teas that entertained Harvard professors and students alike.

“There was an innocence about growing up in those days,” recalled the perennially bow-tied Schlesinger in “A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings.”

He arrived on the second floor of Thayer Hall as a freshman in the fall of 1934. Tuition was $400; room and board totaled $700.

The Philips Exeter Academy graduate quickly impressed his peers and professors, earning a spot as a freshman on The Advocate- and beating out 612 classmates to win the LeBaron Russell Briggs Prize in history that same year.

His learning extended beyond the classroom to Thayer Hall “bull sessions” that “surveyed politics, religion and (above all) sex...”

He was, as Schlesinger wrote about his teenage self, “shy, stammering, bespectacled,” and acne-plagued.

From Thayer, Schlesinger moved on to Adams House, drawn by the dormitory’s private pool and kitchen. He lived with his freshman-year roommate on the top floor of C-entry way, enjoying the tweedy environs and “comely” waitresses who worked in the dining hall.

The voluminous writer—known for 5,000-word days—kept a journal his sophomore year, which he summed up with five words: “Weather, Work, Smoking, Liquor and Love.” He joined fellow literary types as a member of the Signet Society, praising the Dunster Street club for serving “the best luncheon in Cambridge.”

Schlesinger writes that he grew bored by his junior year, only drawn out of his doldrums by his History and Literature thesis on the New England Transcendentalist Orestes A. Brownson.

Despite his youth, the 21-year-old Schlesinger seemed acutely aware of history and its passing.

“When I graduated in June 1938,” he wrote in 2000, “I watched the fiftieth reunion class, venerable men, white-haired, leaning on canes, stumbling along, old, they seemed to us, as the hills.”

ADAMS HOUSE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Schlesinger returned to Harvard in 1947, having published his Pulitzer prize-winning “The Age of Jackson” two years earlier. But though the professor may have settled near the Charles River—his Irving Street home neighbored Julia Child and John K. Galbraith—his thoughts and work were always directed to Potomac.

Throughout the next decade, Schlesinger wrote about the rising threat of Stalinism, chronicled “The Age of Roosevelt”, and provided advice to Democratic causes and presidential candidates like Adlai E. Stevenson.

His constant vacillation between Cambridge and Washington was a campus joke by 1960 when Schlesinger had become one of Kennedy’s most important political confidants.

“Schlesinger declined our offer to bet that he would not be in Cambridge on January 20,” The Crimson wrote sourly in 1961, referring to the day of Kennedy’s inauguration.

In 1966, Schlesinger’s chronicle of the Kennedy administration where he was Kennedy’s Oval Office oracle (his work was expansive and never clearly defined), "A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in The White House," won him his second Pulitzer.

‘FIGHTING LIBERAL’

Schlesinger’s scholarship was never distant from his politics, and for many of today’s historians his glowing portraits of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Kennedy family suffered from partisan fervor.

Schlesinger’s 1981 work, “The Dis-uniting of America”, and his opposition to multi-culturalism has also come under criticism.

“What it did was articulate a vision of America—that is was once united and is now deeply dis-united—that seems to me to have been mistaken but profoundly important,” Jennifer L. Hochschild, Jayne Professor of Government, said today.

Despite those legacies, American historian James T. Kloppenberg said that is not how Schlesinger should be remembered.

“We should recall that in the 1950s and 1960s he embodied the image of the ‘fighting liberal,’ and that is his how he was known during his years teaching at Harvard,” Kloppenberg, the Kemper ’41 professor of American history, said today.

“His achievements as a writer and as a partisan are undeniable, and he should be remembered as someone who made a lifelong effort to put his talents as a writer to good use in the public sphere.”

In 1967 when his son was reprimanded by his Senior Tutor for participating in a protest of Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of the chemical Agent Orange, used by the military in Vietnam, Schlesinger directed his activism against Harvard.

“Is it not barely conceivable that a war, which posterity will very likely regard as the most unintelligible in our history, might justifiably produce a certain mild disquietude on the part of those who may be called upon to fight it?” the historian wrote in a letter at the height of the Vietnam War.

In recent writing, Schlesinger has levelled similar outrage at President George W. Bush for his handling of the Iraq War.

“He had become pretty angry with the direction of American foreign policy,” Gergen said of Schlesinger during his later years. “He thought we lost our way.”

In 1956, Schlesinger spoke to The Crimson about his politics.

“We don’t need caution so much as sound reasoning and the courage to apply it.”

Schlesinger is survived by six children—four from his first marriage to Marian Cannon, and two from his second, to Alexandra Emmet.

—Staff Writer Samuel P. Jacobs can reached at jacobs@fas.harvard.edu.