Friday, January 2, 2009

A Thousand Pages – a review of Arthur Schlesinger's journals

Crack open Arthur Schlesinger’s Journals: 1952 – 2000, and it’s like opening a window on history right as it is being made. In his life, Schlesinger was many things, historian, teacher, speechwriter, friend, father, husband, author and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Jackson and A Thousand Days.) His journals showcase the intense curiosity and lively intellect that led him to be one of the nation’s most prolific historians.

Journals: 1952 - 2000 was distilled from 6000 pages of notes Schlesinger had left upon his death in 2007. Two of his sons, Andrew and Stephen, were assigned with the task of editing the entries into an abridged version of approximately 1000 pages. The book is lively, conversational, but always one wonders, what has been left out? What nuggets were left on the cutting room floor?

Regardless, the book is fascinating. The age of Schlesinger starts with the Eisenhower administration; at the time, Schlesinger was a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson, the two-time presidential candidate who apparently never really wanted to run (and thus never won.) The book ends as the Bush era commences under the burden of the hanging chad.

In between, Schlesinger observes some of the most significant moments of the time: the Bay of Pigs (as a Kennedy insider), the assassinations of the 1960s, the rise and fall of Nixon, the ascendence of Reagan and the humiliation of Clinton. His list of friends seemed endless and his social calendar was crowded with events that included high jinks at Bobby Kennedy’s Hickory Hill home, friendship with the children of FDR and (improbably) hanging out with Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall at one of their parties.

His was an astonishing life and his journals are well worth the read.

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