“Western man in the middle of the 20th century is tense, uncertain, adrift. We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk.” *
The late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote these words, which appear in History, Written in the Present Tense. an appreciataion found in Sunday's NYTimes. He's described as the last great public historian..which may be a bit much. But this selection shows a tremendous sweep .. and very well sums up the era I grew up in, and the prose poem that was in the air then. Described in his obit as partisan he was. Maybe that is where the sweep comes from!
He was the great intellectual of Kennedy's Camelots. With many buds he fathered American studies.
One of the subtexts of this blog has been: Famous people I saw on the street. And Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is one of those folk. In the '80s I guess I was covering a press conference that was announcing the papers to be read at ISSCC, a grand event each year, in New York, in December, usually at a swanky place. Flying down to NYC on Pan Am or taking the train to hear about the fabulous semiconductors was a great kick. And a far cry from the hardscrabble days of working in a drug store and living on the Lower East Side. This particular year the weather was ghastly. I think the event was held at the Yale Club. The elite were reading their papers and smoking their pipes. And there was Arthur, like Mr Peeprs, in a rain coat, looking for a cab or a red cap, paper under arm, looking for something, anyway - the historian and advisor to presidents. The air of an earnest liberal and thoughtful martini drinker. Gee, New York, just like I pictured it. **
History, Written in the Present Tense
With the death last week of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., at 89, America lost its last great public historian. The notion may sound strange, given the appetite, as voracious as at any time in recent memory, for serious works of history, and in particular the vogue for lengthy, often massively detailed biographies of the founders and of presidents.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a Partisan Historian of Power, Is Dead at 89
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian whose more than 20 books shaped discussions for two generations about America’s past and who himself was a provocative, unabashedly liberal partisan, most notably while serving
Elsewhere, when you look at the Times Sunday Magazine spread of Mean's Wear Designers, you expect the atrocious wardrobe, the lack of toothsome smiling, poses that flaunt and preen the cherished notion that, well thoughts are few and far between in the land of teeshirts and seersucker hoodies and teeshirts and misbuttoned fine-gauge cardigans and teeshrits and $122 davenport sack blazers. But the lack of thought is elsewhere in the mag as well. Dont get excited in approaching the lead Story Why Do We Believe, or How Evolutionary Science explains faith in God, because noting happens - it is a bunch of words in a civilized [read: decadent] sleepwalk at the edge of thought. The preening and vacant gazing is there too - Two pages of scrabble that is supposed to recreate the Beginning Word Big Bang in reverse. Why do we believe? How could we with egos this size? Let's do brunch! Science and religion are difficult topics one would expect something between William James and Tom Wolfe. Skip ahead to another unsmiling intellectual pillow fight on display to see the way things are going down New York way - that is Campus Exposure, about a new crop of college sex magazines - again: words, words, words. Non partisan, of course. This has been an age of ideas, not good ones, but ideas. They've boiled down to a handful - "slacker" is one of the big ones. Bloodless ideas take a while to fade away. Schlesinger Jr. in his obit is described as compelled by the interplay of ideas and action. We recall WC Wms admonition 'no ideas but in things' and offer a diagnosis of the present blight of thought about.
*My version, circa 1969 from a paper on humanism and science..
"Our's is an age of massive alienation, violence, anxiety, depression and dehumanization. "
**My version circa 1991, when I saw Arthur..
"With my head down Jim Taylor style and through a few 80mph skyscraper gusts, and I get to the Century Club on 43rd st. Site of the IEEE’s briefing. I slowly figure out what it is a gentlemen’s club, as they were in those days – I saw Arthur D. Schlesinger Jr [maybe pop taught Mailer at Harvard] he’s maybe getting his galoshes. I didn’t ask for an autograph. What do yo say to a presidential adviser from a long ago epoch? “Gee, I really dug the way you handled the Cuban Missile Crisis.”? When I saw Art I made a point of sussing out the club bulletin board; a Rockefeller was a member, Hugh Downs was up for initiation."
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