Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Life in the 20th Century

This was an excellent autobiography. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has written some relatively famous historical books. I have one of them that I enjoyed. He took the same rigor that he uses to write his historical books to his own life.

Unusually for an autobiography he checked his facts and sometimes points out where his memory does not match recorded history. He also talks about how articles or books that he wrote in the Thirties and Forties stand up to history. Since he is a historian, he brings in a lot of the period, the ideas and feeling for each year, that I have rarely seen in biographies.

I honestly thought about buying this book after reading the first third, because he talked about the history and feeling of the Twenties and the Depression in ways I had never seen before. By the middle of the book his liberal tendencies got to be overwhelming so I no longer thought it was something I wanted to own and reread but I was still impressed by his ability to see the people in his life as they appeared to him then and who they ended up being in the years to come.

His description of the years right before WWII were especially interesting because he described to mood in ways I had never heard before. I knew that there was some isolationist sentiment before Pearl Harbor, yet the extent of it was new to me. In his words:
There have been a number of fierce national quarrels in my lifetime -- over
communism in the later Forties, over McCarthyism in the Fifties, over
Vietnam in the Sixties -- but none so tore apart families and friendships as
the great debate of 1940-41. Though historians have dealt ably with
the policy issues, justice has not been done to the searing personal impact
in those angry days...."You could get away from the war for a little while,"
Jeffery Wilson muses, "but not for long, because it was everywhere, even in
the sunlight. It lay behind everything you said or did. You could taste it in your food, you could hear it in music." And so it was for many Americans.

In my experience the war itself eclipses the tension before it. It is an interesting contrast to the war in Iraq. We are not so fully devoted and obsessed with the war. It is easy to avoid and many of us do not know people who are involved. The wholehearted commitment to the war then may have been a reaction to the tensions involved before. Also he mentions that going into the war many people were doubtful of the outcome. Hitler had not had a defeat. Nazi Germany looked like an unstoppable monolith. I think the feeling of military invincibility that resulted from our victory and the Cold War has caused some national problems we are still dealing with.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize and it was well deserved. From the little I have read, Pulitzer prize winning books, especially nonfiction, are worth reading.

A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Houghton Mifflin. 2000

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