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End As You Begin

Michael Beschloss ’77 remembers historian Arthur Schlesinger.

Arthur never lost his curiosity–or the essential modesty that a historian must have to be genuinely curious. I first met him as a 20-year-old student asking for help on my Williams College senior honors thesis. He was almost 60, but he always treated young people as though they were his peers. When I told him that “A Thousand Days” was the first adult book I ever read, he said, with those snapping eyes and wry grin, “Well, my father was much more distinguished than I am!”

Schlesinger made two particular contributions to the way American history is written and read in 2007. Although he was an academic, he insisted that history should not just be a social science but also page-turning literature. He was very conscious of the fact that his New England ancestor George Bancroft was one of America’s great romantic narrative historians. I can remember the chill that went down my spine at the age of 10 when I finished “A Thousand Days” — a thousand pages after the book starts, “It all began in the cold,” it ends, “It all ended, as it began, in the cold.”

Hmmm. My daughter is 10. Perhaps “A Thousand Days” should be her next book . . . or maybe just the next entry in the Warriors series. Whatever.

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#1 Comment By frank uible On March 4, 2007 @ 8:15 pm

Wouldn’t London’s “White Fang” and “Call of the Wild” be better for precocious 10 year olds than anything in the Warrior series?

#2 Comment By Derek On March 4, 2007 @ 8:59 pm

Beschloss notwithstanding, A Thousand Days (940 pages of small text pre-index, by the way) is not one of Schlesinger’s best books. It is not even his best biography of a Kennedy Administration member.

Go with Age Of Jackson, his three volumes on FDR, his first — and now it may be only — volume of his memoirs, or the RFK bio. But don’t worry about your ten-year old reading it yet.

And even if Bechloss was truly a precocious lad, I am going to call BS on him reading A Thousand Days when he was ten. That seems just a bit too self-congratulatory for me. Sorry. I don’t buy it.

dcat

#3 Comment By Anon ’89er On March 4, 2007 @ 10:15 pm

Do NOT get between a 10 year old girl and a warrior book. Even with a doctor in the house. Just don’t try it at home, or anywhere else for that matter.

As for Beschloss, he read the classics illustrated version of A Thousand Days.

#4 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On March 4, 2007 @ 10:53 pm

Well, I buy it. I knew Michael in college and he was precocious. He had read a lot of American history by then, and I know because I had read a lot of history by then as well–including “A Thousand Days,” as well as “Kennedy” by Sorenson. We both shared an interest in analyzing the Kennedy administration at the time and had read all the books on the subject that were available.

Why is it surprising that Beschloss read history at an early age? Physics geeks win their high school science fairs, chemistry geeks blow up things in their basement, and budding programmers start programming at 10 or younger. History geeks also devour their subject–which means they read a lot of books.

The book that hooked me on history–I entered Williams planning to be a History professor–was Esther Forbes’ “Paul Revere and the World He Lived In,” a book I read when I was 13. I also read “The Federalist Papers” that same year. So while slightly behind Michael in when I got my history reading start, I don’t consider his account a fabrication. Makes sense to me.

#5 Comment By Derek On March 5, 2007 @ 12:36 pm

I don’t buy it because I don’t buy it. It’s not like I’m unaware of what it means to be into history — you know, given that I do the history professor thing and all that — and I simply do not believe that at ten he read A Thousand Days. More importantly, I found the gratuitous “Look at me” aspect — his pointing out that he read it at ten — pretty obnoxious. Then again, I tend to think Beschloss is an incredibly overrated historian, so there is probably some transferrence at play.

In any case, I am writing a historiographical article on the Cold war era presidents, and Schlesinger’s book has played a big role in the Kennedy section, as has Sorenson’s. Schesinger’s book is much better than Sorenson’s — I can think of no reason for a nonhistorian to read Sorenson’s book today — but if people want some Kennedy bios to read, I’ll gladly provide a list, starting with Bob Dallek’s “An Unfinished Life.”

dcat

#6 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On March 5, 2007 @ 9:31 pm

Well, just because (1) you don’t like Michael’s tendency to self-promotion and (2) you feel he’s an overrated historian doesn’t mean he’s lying about reading “A Thousand Days” when he was ten. As you note, perhaps “some transference at play.”

While Michael was historically precocious at Williams he was into self-promotion even then. He basically got his start by serving as Prof. Burns’ research assistant and then networking like mad amongst Burns’ colleagues (which would have included Schlesinger). A little known fact is that Beschloss’ advanced degree from Harvard is an MBA–all the book jackets will divulge is, “He did graduate work at Harvard.”

So while I’m sure more mainstream historians dismiss him as a populist, I’m impressed that Michael has been able to figure out a way be a historian–and make a pretty penny–outside of academia. Between connections to American Heritage, some grants here and there, and being an analyst on ABC, he’s made being a historian a well-paying business, something that’s eluded a lot of smart people.

Finally, while some of the early books to come out about Kennedy may not have stood the test of time, they were absolutely devoured for the first several years after Kennedy’s death. Sorenson’s, Schlesinger’s, and Manchester’s books all sold well in the mid-60s and I think in some cases made the Best Seller list. People were hungry for ways to understand what “Camelot” was all about. Kennedy, in both life and death, made history, if not sexy, at least vital and relevant.

#7 Comment By Derek On March 6, 2007 @ 1:11 am

Guy —
I agree that those early attempts were important and many were very readable. Kennedy’s death gave him an instant mystique and froze him in a sort of historiographical amber that hardened as a result of Schlesinger’s imprimatur.
I have known a lot of ten year olds. I have known a lot of very, very smart ten year olds. I have not known a single ten year old ever to have read serious Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction at that age and in any serious way understood them. Perhaps you are right, and he did read it, and he did understand it, and that little aside wasn’t self-indulgent onanism. I’ll maintain my doubts.
I also would assert that most “mainstream historians” (define, please?) would not dismiss Beschloss because he is “populist.” I think they might dismiss him because they don’t think he is a particularly good historian, certainly not worthy of his reputation. (One could say the same for Halberstam or McCulough.) I can name three dozen political historians off the top of my head who blow Beschloss out of the water. It is curious that Beschloss gets to be the go-to guy on matters political for the media. I’m just one of those crazy types who wish merit was more important than being telegenic.

dcat