Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s engrossing autobiography of his coming of age as a man, as a historian, and as a political activist tells the remarkable story of how, in an age of competing ideologies, he emerged as a paladin of anti-Communist liberalism ... His book evokes the confident Cambridge world that formed him and is now long gone, and it is rich in anecdotes, more than a few of them at the author’s own expense. But it is also infused with deep conviction as he argues the case for liberal opposition to the absolutisms of the right and the left. Schlesinger has given us a memoir that, for all their deep differences in temperament and perception of history, bears comparison with The Education of Henry Adams, the classic American autobiography of an earlier era.
Arthur Junior's memoir reads best when it revisits such major intellectual shifts and demonstrates how history is always contemporary history -- in his case an obvious effort to explain and justify the innovations of the New Deal. And his book is most instructive in proving that such revisionist argument is both inevitable and constructive, producing endless debates about liberal society's endless yearnings for reform ... Schlesinger's history of himself is rich with other historical insights, candid (though not particularly introspective) about his own misjudgments, disappointingly stingy with his domestic and inner lives and downright tiresome in his excavations of journal trivia, press clips and encomiums. Fortunately, the excesses are relieved by generous doses of gossip, bursts of self-mockery and rewarding riffs on a great many subjects.
...a rich, evocative and perceptive look at a man and his times. Schlesinger comments that as a historian I am tempted to widen the focus and interweave the life with the times in some reasonable, melodious and candid balance. He succeeds admirably ... This superb memoir provides a unique window from which to view some of the important issues and influential personalities of the first half of the last century.
Schlesinger's personal and intellectual life validates his theory of circularity, except in one key respect: the author started as an anticommunist, liberal New Dealer, and he has adhered to these convictions ever since. The engaging and sophisticated volume explains how these principles were acquired and why they continue to command Schlesinger's assent.
In the hands of this undeniably gifted writer, such raw materials ought to have made for an illuminating and entertaining story. One is a bit puzzled, therefore, by the degree to which A Life in the Twentieth Century manages to be neither. Schlesinger accomplishes none of the tasks of an autobiographer: he provides no account of his inner life, tells us little about the lives of others, and casts no new light on the events of his time ... Readers are thus left to figure things out for themselves—and it must be said that the pieces Schlesinger has given them do not add up to an especially attractive portrait.