June 16, 2021

On Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s ‘Disuniting of America’ and Its Relevance to Today

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (Ted Thai / The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images)

In 1991, toward the end of his long, productive writing life, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote an amazing book called “The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society.” If anything, conservatives were more enthusiastic about it than liberals (a switch for Schlesinger). I have thought of this book in recent days and months — and I have written about it here. See what you think.

Have you ever marked up a book so much that you render your markings useless? In other words, you have highlighted so much, you have practically highlighted the whole darn thing? That’s what I did with Disuniting when I sat down with it a few weeks ago.

In the essay I have linked to, I have many quotations. But I would like to offer a couple more, here on the Corner. One concerns two Harvard professors, two historians: Stephan Thernstrom, my old friend and professor, and Bernard Bailyn, who died earlier this month.

Schlesinger writes,

Two distinguished American historians at Harvard, Bernard Bailyn and Stephan Thernstrom, offered a course in population history called “The Peopling of America.” Articles appeared in the Harvard Crimson criticizing the professors for “racial insensitivity” . . .

The episode reminds one of the right-wing students who in Joe McCarthy days used to haunt the classrooms of liberal Harvard professors (like me) hoping to catch whiffs of Marxism emanating from the podium. Thernstrom decided to hell with it and gave up the course. A signal triumph for political correctness.

The Disuniting of America is an elegant, erudite, explanatory book — but there is also a streak of anger in it. Righteous anger. As here, for example:

Ethnic ideologues have not been without effect. They set themselves against the old American ideal of assimilation. They call on the republic to think in terms not of individual but of group identity and to move the polity from individual rights to group rights. They have made a certain progress in transforming the United States into a more segregated society. They have done their best to turn a college generation against Europe and the Western tradition.

Etc., etc. “They fill the air with recrimination and rancor and have remarkably advanced the fragmentation of American life.”

For the enjoyment of National Review and Buckley fans, I will paste some concluding paragraphs of my piece:

Above, I used the word “ungainsayable,” in homage to William F. Buckley Jr., who used it with some frequency. I have never heard anyone else use it. WFB and Arthur Schlesinger were old antagonists, but the last book WFB ever read, I believe, was Schlesinger’s Journals: 1952–2000 (published posthumously). He was enthralled with those journals. There were two references to him, both of them mean, he told me — but he was wowed by the journals nonetheless.

He had a plan: to review the journals at great length — 20,000 words or so — for The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, or a comparable publication. He died before that could happen, however.

I will trust Bill on the journals, which I have not read. The Disuniting of America, I have — and I find it an outstanding contribution, made by the author in the twilight of his career. This is a patriotic contribution, too. You can hear in Schlesinger’s book the mystic chords of American memory, which Lincoln hoped would swell again.

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