Colleague Recalls Historian Arthur Schlesinger

American historian Robert Dallek was a contemporary and friend of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the prolific historian who died Wednesday of a heart attack while dining in Manhattan. Dallek talks about Schlesinger's contributions to the canon of 20th-century American history.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. is being remembered as a scholar of great range and intellectual rigor, an unapologetic liberal Democrat known for his fine humor and his ever present bow tie. Schlesinger died yesterday after suffering a heart attack in New York. He was 89. He wrote more than 20 books; perhaps his most famous was "A Thousand Days," spun out of his role as special assistant to President Kennedy.

In interview with NPR in 2000, he talked about his approach to history.

ARTHUR SCHLESINGER JR: Well, I think a historian has his own discipline. But historians like everybody else are prisoners of their own experience, and they've often read back into the past the preoccupations of the present.

BLOCK: Historian Robert Dallek joins us in the studio to talk about Arthur Schlesinger's life and work. And I take it you would count yourself not just as a colleague but also as a friend.

ROBERT DALLEK: Yes, indeed.

BLOCK: When you would talk, would you talk about history, or would you talk about more mundane things?

DALLEK: Oh, history, current events, sitting presidents, senators, the Kennedys. He had a keen interest in what the upcoming generation, so to speak, of historians was doing, because as he said in the interview we played, there is always a presentist quality to what we do. And so he was kind of interested to know what a young historian, what his present experience was going to play out in his writing of history.

BLOCK: He was the son of a prominent historian, wrote his first book at age 27, "The Age of Jackson" - this is 1945 - just happened to win a Pulitzer.

DALLEK: Yes.

BLOCK: What lessons did he draw from the presidency of Andrew Jackson? And you've been talking about a presentist approach.

DALLEK: Yes.

BLOCK: How did he relate them to the politics with then the 1940s?

DALLEK: Sure. Well, of course, he was very much a child of the New Deal era and had enormous admiration for Franklin Roosevelt and liberal democracy with a capital D. And I think what he did was to read back into that Jacksonian past the lessons of the Roosevelt new deal era, the role of government in representing the underclass, in the case of Jackson the working class, the idea that the federal government could right historic wrongs.

And I should add that what's so interesting about Schlesinger and makes him so unusual is generally there's a rule of thumb about historians. They don't write great books until they reach the age of 40. And Schlesinger was one of those who managed to do this. And it was at the beginning of a most impressive, extraordinary career.

BLOCK: He's been criticized for, in his book "A Thousand Days," for glossing over flaws in the Kennedy administration. He wrote in that book, the historical mind can be analytical or it can be romantic. The best historians are both.

DALLEK: Well, I think it is true in the sense that it's rare that you find a biographer or a historian who spends five years, seven years, maybe longer, working on a big biographical figure without some passion about that person, without some feelings of attraction or repulsion. And I think then the impulse is to, one the one hand, yes, tell the truth as best you can, but also being influenced by your impulse to raise the man's stature or diminish it.

And I think Arthur very much played that role in writing about John Kennedy. But he also understood that it was well for later historians to come along, go back, reread the record. He was fond of quoting Duchess story and Peter Gayle(ph), who said history is argument without end and that none of us, none of us produce definitive works. And I think he would have been the first to say, will his works lived on? Yes, but it's certainly not the last word.

BLOCK: Robert Dallek, thanks very much for coming in.

DALLEK: And my pleasure.

BLOCK: Historian Robert Dallek, remembering his fellow historian and friend Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who died yesterday at age 89.

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