I knew that one day I’d be reading in the paper about Arthur’s death, but never really believed it. He was too intensely, happily alive—too energetic. The consummate New Yorker, he was a man about town even as he began to fail physically in the final months. Those of us who were lucky enough to share his incandescence are sad today, but also bewildered. We truly will not ever see his like again.
He was an extraordinary historian, both as narrator and interpreter. A scholar is considered fortunate if one or two of his or her books get recognized, and if that scholarship opens anew a particular field of study. Arthur’s score of books earned much more recognition than that, and set the terms of study for three entire eras of American history: the times of Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. But Arthur was also an extraordinary public citizen, a patriot in the sense of sacrificing his precious time and energy for the good of his party, his country and the world. He would have written even more history had he not devoted so much of his time to writing speeches (for his favorite candidates as well as himself) and other citizenly duties. But then, without his political activity—defending liberalism from all comers, right and left—his historical writings would have suffered. Our politics would have suffered as well.
Many of Arthur’s critics complained that his political opinions tainted his writing about the past, and robbed it of objectivity. The criticism was unfair. Arthur knew that objectivity is not the same thing as neutrality. He presented his historical arguments with abundant research and powerful logic, bidding others to challenge his conclusions. And he was always willing (with a graciousness uncommon among professors) to admit when he was wrong. He often quoted the great Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, that “history is argument without end.” Historical truth—or its closest approximation—does not arise perfected from the writings of all-knowing, objective historians, but from those unceasing arguments.
Arthur’s sense of history and of politics mirrored each other, inflected by his intense awareness of human frailty and dislike of utopias, as well as his sense of freedom: He saw it not as a fixed thing, but as a process, a means as well as an end. He spelled some of this out in an old and bracing essay on the origins and meaning of the American Civil War:
“We delude ourselves when we think that history teaches us that evil will be ‘outmoded’ by progress and that politics consequently does not impose on us the necessity for decision and for struggle. If historians are to understand the fullness of the social dilemma they seek to reconstruct, they must understand that sometimes there is no escape from the implacabilities of moral decision.”
History, like politics, was not redemptive for Arthur, and humanity would never transcend its imperfections. But that did not remove the duty to struggle for something better and, when necessary, make moral judgments.
There will never be anyone like Arthur, with his wit and his endless wonder at the world—the historian as civic figure, even as his eyes twinkled at the latest bit of gossip, sipping his lunchtime Bombay Dry martini, ever curious about who or what was in store, maybe just around the corner. And that is why we are so sad today.
This article first appeared on the opinion Web site of the Guardian of London, available at commentisfree.co.uk.
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