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A Ruthless Charm

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was bred in the bone for his role on the stage of 20th-century American history.  His father, the historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger, was already a rising academic star when Arthur Jr. was born in 1917 in Iowa City, while, on his mother’s side, the prominent 19th-century historian, George Bancroft, was said to be an ancestor.  When Arthur Sr. was offered a position at Harvard in 1924, young Arthur’s fate was all but sealed.  He was raised in the hothouse atmosphere of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and given every possible incentive by his doting parents to pursue academic success, first at Phillips Exeter Academy and then, beginning in 1934, at Harvard.  Even before his son had left Cambridge, Massachusetts for that other Cambridge to continue his studies as a Henry Fellow at Peterhouse, Arthur Sr. had managed to get Jr.’s senior thesis on Orestes Brownson published by Little, Brown—not without some calling in of favors.  While there were gestures of resistance in these early years against his father’s interventions, the young Schlesinger seems to have modeled himself on Arthur Sr. to such an extent that in 1933 he had his middle birth name changed from Bancroft to Meier (thus acquiring the Jr. suffix).  None of this is to suggest that he was undeserving of his many accolades.  Indeed, he was so focused on the historical vocation that he had little...

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