Author and journalist, GERALD W. JOHNSON is a Southern Democrat who was born in North Carolina and who has lived happily in Baltimore ever since the SUNPAPERScalled him to their editorial staff in 1926. A close friend of Frank R. Kent and Henry L. Mencken, he is the author of twenty books, including biographies of Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and F.D.R. As a lifelong Democrat, he is well qualified to review THE POLITICS OF UPHEAVAL,a new volume by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
BY GERALD W. JOHNSON
IN A play backstopped by both Houghton Mifflin and the Book-of-the-Month Club, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., presents the third bulky volume of what is already a monumental, and bids fair to become a colossal, work on the period 1932 to 1945 in American political history. The title of the new volume is The Politics of Upheaval (Houghton Mifflin, $7.50).
Three years ago, when this project was announced with the appearance of the first volume, The Crisis of the Old Order, some people were skeptical. The writer of these lines, for one, noting that the overall title, The Age of Roosevelt, implied history, expressed doubt that anyone could produce a work on the period that would be history and not essentially a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
That doubt is now greatly reduced. Thus far, and especially in the new volume, Schlesinger has written history. True, he has yet to deal with the war years, during which Roosevelt’s constitutional function as commander in chief swallowed whole both his other constitutional function as chief magistrate and his extralegal function as party leader. It may therefore be argued with some plausibility that the supreme test of Mr. Schlesinger’s ability to stick to his knitting is still to come; but the probability that he will survive even that test is much increased by his success thus far.
However, the admission that this is really history, not biography, merely turns the page to the next question — namely, what kind of history? The question can be answered with the single word “slanted,”but the interpretation of that word is, to adapt Woodrow Wilson’s phrase, a matter of near consequence and great delicacy, for you can read it either way — as evidence that the work is not history at all, or as evidence that it is the only kind that compensates the layman for his trouble in reading it.
You can indict Schlesinger for practically every crime in historiography’s Newgate calendar, with one exception. You cannot call him dull. But the exception is terrific, since dullness is the only capital crime in the list. All others are subject to mitigating circumstances which, under the right conditions, may transform them from vices into virtues. It will not be contended here that Mr. Schlesinger is entitled to go, as the English judges say, without a stain on his character as a historian; but it will be contended that a good deal of what is charged against him is actually testimony for the defense.
For instance, he is as definitely pro New Deal as Macaulay was pro William the Third. But it is incontrovertible fact that the New Deal happened, and to offer a rational explanation of why it happened is the task that distinguishes the historian from the mere annalist, who confines himself to telling how it happened. But since the why of any event is always more or less subjective, dealing with it objectively is a contradiction in terms. Pro or con you must be, and, granting respect for factual accuracy, to go one way is as legitimate as to go the other. As a lawyer would put it, the fact that Schlesinger is pro New Deal is incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial.
Counts in the indictment that are more to the point, although still subject to demur, are that Schlesinger is opinionated, didactic, magisterial (some would substitute “arrogant”), and sometimes blatantly wrong. To a layman, the necessity of refuting these charges is not immediately apparent. These things may make a writer questionable, but they also make him interesting, and when they are restrained within the bounds of reason, they may even make him charming. Schlesinger always remains within the bounds of reason.
For instance, I regard his analysis of the mind and character of Charles E. Hughes as fundamentally inaccurate, in that it allows too little weight to the Feather Duster’s fierce moral autonomy. But what an autopsy it is; what deftness, what precision, what economy of motion in reducing to disjecta membra one of the stateliest of popular idols! I don’t believe it, but I wouldn’t have missed it for half a dozen dollars.
A more serious fault, it seems to me, is an occasional self-contradiction, at least by implication. in the early pages of the book Schlesinger describes Roosevelt’s state of mind in late 1934 and the first half of 1935 as one of irresolution, indecision, and uncertainty. These describe Roosevelt’s course of action — or lack of action — accurately. But later Schlesinger gives an explanation of the long pause that is adequate without dragging in any psychic disfunction. During the Hundred Days, Roosevelt had been shelling the woods with an intensity unprecedented in our political history, but the effect of his bombardment could not be appraised instantly. It was essential to determine how much of his first program was going to stand up before proceeding to the second phase. A pause for that purpose was neither irresolute nor indecisive, although it did appear so.
Hypercriticism may allege a lack of organization, owing to Schlesinger’s constant use of the technique of the flashback with damage to the clarity of the chronological sequence. The answer to that is that you cannot organize an earthquake. The narrator who undertakes to describe a situation in which everything happened at once must impose an arbitrary pattern upon chaotic events in order to be comprehensible; and Schlesinger’s arrangement of his material is as logical as any other.
So MUCH for the craftsmanship; but written history is not strictly a craft, it is also an art. Mere logical analysis of the events of the age of Roosevelt, however comprehensive and exact, would leave most of it out of account, for the greater and more important part, by far, was emotional, not intellectual. Roosevelt’s unforgettable overture, “All we have to fear is fear itself,” was recognition of the glaring illogicality of the whole situation; and the historian who refuses to recognize it shirks the main part of his job.
Schlesinger does not refuse, and his struggle with this Antaean difficulty is the factor that fills the book with a dramatic tension that to a layman is its supreme merit. Austere logicians may be distressed by his practice of giving large and loving attention to the apparently inconsequential — obscure sectarians and incredible fantasts who appeared briefly on the national stage and then vanished forever. But it was precisely this ballet of the harlequins that gave the era the startling color that was one of its characteristics. A few of them — Huey Long, Father Coughlin, Dr. Townsend — remain as faded memories, but Schlesinger, digging industriously into the tumuli of longburied causes, has dragged out the skeletal remains of an astonishing number of others. Few newspaper readers today could identify R. E. Clements, Tom Amlie, Gerald L. K. Smith, Seward Collins, “Goat-gland” Brinkley, Lawrence Dennis, William Dudley Pelley, or Gerald Winrod, to mention only a few; but time was when each of them haunted the front pages, and their cumulative effect on the course of events was appreciable.
Even the logicians must admit the strict relevance of Schlesinger’s work when he turns to character sketches of indubitably important figures. The artistic merit of every one of these is beyond debate. Even that of Hughes, unfavorably mentioned earlier, is a technical triumph, and it is excelled by a number of others. For example, that of James A. Farley is a superb picture of a man of extraordinary ability who nevertheless missed the bus, was doomed to miss it. That of A1 Smith, too, is remarkable, but in a different way. It is ruthlessly destructive, and it accomplishes the demolition by the use of Smith’s own words. Al, at the Mayflower dinner of the Liberty League, was a grief to his friends of the old days, but he is no grief to Schlesinger; he is fair game, and he gets it from both barrels. It is strictly legitimate, it is entirely relevant, and it is deadly accurate; but it is colder than Eskimo hell.
The central event in this volume is the turn from the first to the second New Deal, if it was in fact a turn and not an efflorescence, an inevitable development. On this point, Schlesinger is not altogether convincing, although his analysis of the contest between the Brandeis philosophy and the Frankfurter philosophy is extraordinarily luminous. It accounts in a most plausible way for the defection of the original New Dealers, typified by Raymond Moley. It was not treason; it was simply a case of increasing incompatibility; but did that incompatibility develop, or was it merely revealed by the passage of time and the pressure of events? Was it a misunderstanding, or was it an increasing understanding of each other by both parties?
On this, Schlesinger has not said the last word. On this, the last word will never be said, for it is of the essence of psychological drama. The peculiar distinction of this author is not that he has concluded the whole matter but that he has apprehended it more adequately than almost any other writer on the period. The people who thought Roosevelt a devil and those who thought him a demigod are both relatively simple cases whose analysis presents no great difficulty. But what about those who believed and then disbelieved? Especially, what about those — Dean Acheson, for a conspicuous example — who believed, disbelieved, and then believed again?
Ever since the League of Nations fight, the tired liberal has been dismissed simply as a misfortune, either a victim of combat fatigue or one who misconceived the idea from the start. Schlesinger is aware that this is not the whole story. He has not missed the element in the situation that rises above misfortune and touches the theme of Greek tragedy, the struggle of man in the grip of implacable, invincible destiny. He perceives and records the genuine sadness of the former New Dealers who quit; but he has not thoroughly explored the possibility that what broke them was not the incomprehensible whim of sardonic gods but a partial divorce from reality in their own thinking. At times, indeed, one suspects this author himself of some reluctance to admit the obvious; his acceptance of the theory of a sharp disparity between the two New Deals is too ready and too complete.
Schlesinger assumes that Roosevelt shifted from one New Deal to the other; yet his concluding chapter is a brilliant exposition of Roosevelt’s tremendous hold on the confidence of the people. It was not sympathy; it was empathy, the power to project one’s consciousness into another being. This aristocratic product of Groton and Harvard could not merely understand the common man; he could be the common man when he considered the common man’s difficulties. Schlesinger does not penetrate quite this far; he calls Roosevelt’s quality humanitarianism, which is an understatement. It was humanity. Perhaps it was not any more a virtue than the color of his eyes was a virtue. Perhaps Roosevelt could not be anything else. Be that as it may, when the American victim of the Depression looked at Roosevelt, he saw not a friend, but himself — magnified many diameters, of course, but proportionally the same, and moved by the same impulses, thinking the same thoughts, hating and loving in the same directions. It was not loyalty to him; it was identification with him that held the masses as in bands of steel.
This raises an interesting speculation: Was Roosevelt ever a New Dealer, first, second, or any other? If he never adhered to any one deal, then the supposed shift from one to another was in appearance only. Schlesinger almost, but not quite, asserts this in his conclusion; for it seems to be implied in his admission that the humanization of government was Roosevelt’s consistent aim. In that case, the New Deal, singular or plural, was merely a device of the hired hands commissioned by the chief to effect his purpose.
In any event, the appearance of a leader with whom the masses of the people identify always precipitates drama on a colossal scale, with resultant woe to the historians. For, to deal successfully with drama, they must to some extent subordinate their science to their art, always a risky business; and when the drama is immense, great care must be exercised or the distortion will become grotesque. It may seem faint praise, but in the circumstances it is a very high tribute to Mr. Schlesinger to say that his book — including all three volumes — is always dramatic without ever becoming melodramatic. It rises above the level of chronicle to become an important contribution to historical writing, to scholarship, and to art.