A Life in the 20th Century, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, jr.

Book 23

I have had a copy of Schlesinger’s journals on my to-be-read shelf for months. And his Pulitzer Prize winning The Age of Jackson has been there for about ever. Then I found A Life in the 20th Century, his memoir, at some used book sale or another. I think it was meant as the first volume of a memoir, because it only goes up to 1950, but Schlesinger didn’t live to finish it. The journals were published by his kids after he died.

In any event, Schlesinger was a professional historian who just happened to be in President Kennedy’s inner circle. Of course, we are barely introduced to Kennedy in this book. Instead it is really about the study of history. Schlesinger’s father was a history professor at Harvard, and there are plenty of stories and name dropping.

Half the book is taken up with WWII and fascism and communism. I really love what he has to say about his Greatest Generation:

“We call it the Good War at the millenium and smother it in sentiment. Of course, no war is any good, but occasionally a few, like the American Ciil War and the Second World War, are necessary. Still, even the few Good Wars can be corrupting and murderous.”

He notes that while we were all united the war effort, many people thought of it as payback for Pearl Harbor, rather than fighting the fascist dictator trying to take over the world. He was pointing a finger at the midwest. He also called out the war profiteers.

After the war, as he went back to the study of American History, Schlesinger writes about “revisionism”. In the 1940’s and 50’s there was a view of the Civil War, being published by the generation before his. It denied the Civil War was inevitable and denied slavery as the cause. This made Schlesinger nuts, but as he wrote, he noted that the perspective of the writer is very important. The generation before his was shaped by WWI. By virtue of those experiences, these men thought no war was inevitable. His own generation, shaped by WWII determined that some wars were necessary (as described above). I could talk about this forever.

Schlesinger quoted his own writings throughout the book and I really liked his self-commentary. Every once in awhile, he admits to being wrong. More often he maintains the truth of his statements while admitting to writing like an arrogant punk.

I like arrogant punks. I will be reading him again.

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