Nostalgia, Gentle Complaint on the Way to the Vital Center

A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950, by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Houghton Mifflin, 557 pages, $28.95.

In this lively, rather tender account of his first 33 years, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. presents a happy, steady progress from heir to arriviste . After growing into his father’s profession and politically moderate temperament, the precocious scion goes on famously to define the “vital center” as the sweet spot of American ideological life; but more personally, the coinage might stand for “the thick of things,” which is where the younger Schlesinger so plainly loves being.

He spent a “generally sunny” childhood in Midwestern university towns and then Cambridge, Mass., where his father’s eminent friends and acquaintances, from Felix Frankfurter to H. L. Mencken, expanded young Arthur’s horizons and autograph book. Overcoming shyness and acne at Exeter, along with wistful regret about coming of age in the earnest 30’s instead of the glamorous 20’s, Mr. Schlesinger was soon careering from credential to credential. As an undergraduate in his father’s Harvard domain, he ended up more cocky than cowed. A Henry Fellowship took him to the other Cambridge to witness the appeasement year of 1938-39. The Society of Fellows brought him briefly back to Harvard; then it was time for service with the Office of War Information–where he became “deplorably adept” at ghostwriting–and the O.S.S., whose work got him to London for the buzz bombs and Paris after liberation, but whose operation in Foggy Bottom seemed “so terribly remote from the political scene.” The first years of peace found him newly well-known for The Age of Jackson (1944), busily moving between journalism (“The Fortune piece led to lasting friendships with Welles, Berle, Morgenthau and Rockefeller”) and, once more, Harvard, with time out to be special assistant to Averell Harriman, over in Europe running the Marshall Plan.

Mr. Schlesinger’s taste for moderation leaves him right about most of the big things–a detestation of Communists, particularly the American kind; a preference for “liberalism without mawkishness”; a zestful appreciation of “FDR’s ironical achievement to rescue capitalism from the capitalists.” Taking pride in his progressivism, he insists that, politically, the “middle of the road” runs not through the vital but the “dead” center.

Alas, that’s smack-dab where he winds up in a number of other respects. He spends a lot of pages on his formative cultural consumption (he gave some early thought to being a drama critic) and reveals his tastes to be thoroughly canonical. A visit to Venice makes it “then and thereafter my favorite city next to Paris”; Billie Holiday is a “matchless” singer; and although bad eyesight and tipsiness gave him an imperfect first view of Citizen Kane , he writes that “Later, of course, I came to admire Kane too.”

Along with the “brevity of American history”–he remembers hearing Harvard’s A. Lawrence Lowell “reminisce about the election of 1860″–Mr. Schlesinger takes the “circularity of life” as one of his themes. But he often ascribes to coincidence the nearly inevitable results of simple proximity; if you get out as much as he has, you’re bound to keep running into yourself and everybody else. Mr. Schlesinger seems never to have been near someone who isn’t famous, or soon to be famous, or whose children will someday be famous. His closest English friend, for example, Charles Wintour, would father Anna, “the smart and stylish editor of the American Vogue .”

Most of the dropped names come with toastmastered encomia. John Kenneth Galbraith is “a man of true originality of mind and generosity of spirit”; Isaiah Berlin took “an unquenchable pleasure in the vagaries of human experience”; and the Janeway family gets saluted with a brace of approving appositives: “Later Eliot Janeway, an entertaining fellow, and I became pretty good friends, and his wife, Elizabeth, an excellent novelist, and his son Michael, a thoughtful journalist, really good friends.” There are moments, it must be said, when a reader feels he’s in the middle of some egghead version of Natural Blonde .

It’s hard to think of an intellectual’s memoir with less score-settling than this one. When it comes to his ideological opponents, Mr. Schlesinger prefers to forgive and forget–assuming there was any unpleasantness in the first place. He’s got favorable things to declare about Philip Johnson, William Casey, Richard Helms, Joe Alsop and Henry Luce, and is even up to the near-impossible job of finding something nice to say about Randolph Churchill: “I found him, most of the time, courteous, entertaining and no more disagreeable than the occasion demanded.” From time to time, the author takes gentle note of his own flaws–a “taste for luxury,” a tendency toward glibness, a susceptibility to flattery–but what gives his book a great deal of charm is not so much this self-deprecation as his own evident ability to be charmed, something much rarer than a delight in being flattered.

Mr. Schlesinger often quotes from his appearances in the memoirs of other people quite a bit less famous than himself. Squibs from Woodrow Wyatt, Henry Ferns and Felix Gilbert dapple the page like factlets in a pop-up video. These reminiscences and estimations are typically favorable to Mr. Schlesinger, but the overall effect is something like the opposite of self-aggrandizing. An insecurity haunts the effort; a reader senses the author’s more-than-normal compulsion to validate his own experience in terms of other people’s. Mr. Schlesinger’s dislike of cauliflower must be compared to Bush the Elder’s aversion to broccoli; that youthful acne, “if not so disfiguring as the psoriasis that John Updike recalls so feelingly from his own boyhood, still was demoralizing.” When he reappraises The Vital Center a half-century after writing it, the historian spends his most fascinated paragraphs pointing out how Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich both came to appropriate the phrase or quote from the book.

Whatever its psychological implications, the constant attempt to see himself in context makes this, admirably, less memoir than honest-to-God autobiography, that neglected genre in which the author tries to assess his life in the world rather than enumerate the ways in which the world has let him down. Mr. Schlesinger has made use not only of those self-validating memoirs, but also of journals, letters and contemporary press accounts. We learn that, on the day of his birth in 1917, men’s shoes were selling at Saks for $5.95 and Mata Hari was executed in Paris.

Now in his 80’s, Mr. Schlesinger remains a clear, fast-paced writer who can make even his ancestry–that bane of all biographical opening pages–a lucid pleasure. Famous for decrying the absence of social history amidst the political variety, the elder Arthur Schlesinger would be pleased by his son’s recollections of how an undergraduate went to bed and got up in the 1930’s: “[W]e had to wind our watches; the battery-powered watch was still to come. When we dressed in the morning, some began by putting on BVDs, a form of one-piece underwear now extinct …. After putting on pants (no khakis or jeans), we had to button our flies; the zipper did not appear till the late thirties.” Schlesinger Sr. wondered why historians left to novelists so much of what might be their own province, and here again Jr. does him proud. Consider this Trollopian comparison of F.D.R.’s functionaries and Truman’s Fair Dealers: “New Dealers were typically people extruded from American life, too highly charged for the towns that produced them and to which so few of them ever returned. Fair Dealers seemed to spring straight from the common life of the country. Most could sink back into it without leaving a ripple on the surface. With their pink cheeks and bland, unlined faces, their healthy, handsome daughters and their warm family lives, their affable extroversions and their boisterous practical jokes, they were part of the American landscape.”

Mr. Schlesinger’s Life is full of nostalgic grace notes and gentle cultural complaint. He mourns the “high noon of the print culture” in which he did his childhood reading; laments the dilution of cocktails into white wine and the recent doubling of the social kiss to involve both cheeks. Several years ago, he did the state some late yeoman service with The Disuniting of America , a book that looked out over a Balkanizing P.C. landscape that was hardly his idea of diversity. In this new volume, despite a few swipes at “multicultural busybodies” and “political correctness cops,” Mr. Schlesinger seems less in the mood for confrontation than twilight resignation and polite mea culpa . He sighs a bit guiltily over the childhood pleasure he took in fireworks and freak shows, and expresses relief at being told, by other boldface names, that it was all right to have liked Amos ‘n’ Andy : “In 1997, dining with Henry Louis Gates Jr., Stanley Crouch and the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, I was cheered to learn that many black Americans also enjoyed [the program].”

Mr. Schlesinger confesses to a “weakness for sequels” in his own reading. Having enjoyed this first volume of autobiography, I must confess that I’m not quite looking forward to the second. It’s not so much a matter of the darker personal currents that are bound to flow–in this first installment, the author is quite discreet about the ups and downs of courting Marian Cannon, his first wife, and so decorous about his wartime “Paris girl” that a reader can’t be sure how much of a fling got flung–but rather, of what’s in store once the professor’s crossover dreams are fulfilled in the red-hot center of the Kennedy White House. The previews in volume 1 are not promising. J.F.K. occasionally looms and shimmers (“a young fellow I distantly remembered from Harvard named John F. Kennedy”), and when recounting his first meeting with one of the clan, way back in December 1931, Mr. Schlesinger is actually inspired to spin Rosemary’s lobotomy: “Her personal tragedy was terrible, but it yielded immense dividends in the crusade the Kennedys, especially Jean Smith and her sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, later led on behalf of the handicapped and the retarded.” For those who prefer The Age of Jackson to A Thousand Days –in both literature and life–a certain gritting of teeth will be required.

Thomas Mallon’s In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing will be published in January by Pantheon .