Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Wilentz Review of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Bio

I think Sean Wilentz's review of a new Schlesinger bio is letting its subject off easy when it comes to his 1950s anticommunism.

Wilentz concedes that Schlesinger's "actions in the early 1950s were not impeccable." Parenthetically, he mentions Schlesinger's campaign against an unnamed book editor (Angus Cameron), says it was disgraceful, and says that Schlesinger later regretted it. I would say that the campaign was despicable. It led right-wingers to label Little, Brown and Company a communist front, and it forced Cameron to resign as editor-in-chief. Cameron's crimes were turning down George Orwell's Animal Farm and publishing Howard Fast's Spartacus. (He also published The Joy of Cooking and Catcher in the Rye.) It took Cameron almost a decade to land an equivalent editorial position at Random House, where he specialized in cookbooks.

The Cameron episode wasn't unique. In his New York Post column, Schlesinger called Carey McWilliams and his colleagues "typhoid Marys of the left"--they weren't communists, but they spread the disease. At the time, McWilliams was editor of The Nation and one of Cameron's authors at Little, Brown.

Wilentz writes: "The rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy soon thereafter led to unjust charges that Schlesinger ... had abetted the rise of the Red Scare." But as Wilentz certainly knows, McCarthy was a latecomer. The probes, purges, and blacklists began in the late 1940s. Schlesinger's attacks did real and lasting damage when they were made.

In short, the claim that Schlesinger aided the Red Scare is just, and "not impeccable" doesn't begin to capture the damage that aid inflicted on real people's lives and careers. It may be true that Schlesinger was "alarmed by the witch hunts" and denounced red-hunters. But if he couldn't imagine the damage his attacks would have at the time, he was naive. Ironically, that's how he described McWilliams on the subject of international affairs.