Arthur of Camelot: remembering Arthur Schlesinger, a knight-errant with typewriter.

Author:Widmer, Ted

Arts: History - Biography


"The American Scholar," the 1837 Emerson oration that gave this publication its name, describes a mythical person who magically combines qualities of derring-do with intellectual rigor, and simultaneously fills the offices of "priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier." Like most myths, it seems to exaggerate what is possible, unless Emerson was talking about himself, as he surely was. But a worthy successor to Emerson sprang up in the 20th century, now receding rapidly into the ancient bogs of history. In true mythic fashion, he was a man named Arthur and spent much of his time traveling toward Camelot.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. was born on October 15, 1917, a few months after the United States entered the First World War, and died nearly nine decades later, on February 28, 2007. If his arrival, in Columbus, Ohio, was a relatively quiet affair, his departure was anything but. A star-studded cast saw him off in style at an event held on April 23 in New York's Cooper Union--the same place where Abraham Lincoln used history to seize the presidency. An astonishing lineup of politicians and intellectuals told anecdotes about Arthur--Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Ted Kennedy, Norman Mailer, Ted Sorensen, to name just a few. Emerson would have approved that this loud and festive event was open to the public, without charge.

Arthur's midwestern origins (he also lived in Iowa, before his father got the call to Harvard in 1924) came as a surprise, perhaps even to him. With his almost comically exaggerated bow ties and smarty-pants demeanor, he could seem the quintessence of a certain kind of New Englander--the Harvard know-it-all. But an outsider's distance always gave extra sharpness to this insider's perspective--an Ohioan in Cambridge, a Cantabrigian in Washington and New York, a Stevenson man for Kennedy, a liberal anti-Communist, and, from his arrival on the literary scene in 1939, a somewhat anti-academic academic. A feeling of separation was clearly there at the beginning--why else would someone study the unorthodox thinker Orestes Brownson, who despised respectable Boston almost as much as it despised him? Arthur never received a Ph.D. either--preferring to write books without any accreditation from the guild. Perhaps a distrust of academic convention comes naturally to the offspring of academics--although few children ever said kinder things about their parents than Arthur, who changed his name so that he could add the "Jr."

As someone who barely went to grad school, I found that perpetual tension--now inside the academy, now out--a source of great magnetism. Like most of us, I got to know Arthur the old-fashioned way, through his books (and it was not for many years after I began reading them that I actually met him). Around the third year of a Ph.D. program, I was approaching the crunch time of a dissertation decision--not only what topic to choose, but whether to even bother. I read widely and desperately, searching in...

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