At Exeter Academy in 1931, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. plays a board game called Camelot with a roommate whose mother is best friends from convent school with Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. In the 1970s, Schlesinger lives in a house on Manhattan's East 64th Street. He looks out his bedroom window one day and sees his neighbor Richard M. Nixon "prowling restlessly around his garden." In a little while a party begins at the Schlesinger house. A guest invited by a friend of his wife's comes to the door, a man whom Schlesinger has never met: Alger Hiss. They have a polite chat even though Schlesinger considers Hiss to be just about as guilty as Nixon said he was long years before.
History teems with a rich underground life magic premonitions, sly recurrences, what Schlesinger calls "the circularity of things." Invisible wires vibrate between the dimensions of public and private. Schlesinger is 83 now, a distinguished historian who (speaking of circularity) is the son of another distinguished historian named Arthur Schlesinger, from whom he inherited a familiar cyclical hypothesis of American history, the idea of alternating radicalism and conservatism.
The first volume of Schlesinger's memoirs, "A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950" (Houghton Mifflin; 557 pages; $28.95), is a rich, spirited performance. Schlesinger moves energetically down the years, meeting everyone worth meeting, dispensing opinions (sometimes brilliant, sometimes merely partisan and captious, sometimes dead wrong, as when, early on, he pronounces Harry Truman to be a corrupt mediocrity). T. S. Eliot wrote, "The trilling wire in the blood sings beneath inveterate scars,/ Appeasing long forgotten wars."
Over six decades, Schlesinger has divided himself between the roles of historian (author, notably, of the three-volume "The Age of Roosevelt," about FDR) and activist-courtier. His memoir assembles an all-star cast, with anecdotes and subplots playing through the grand events of the Depression and the New Deal, of World War II and the postwar years when the Cold War set in, and Schlesinger was a leader of the American "NCL" the valiantly anti-Stalinist, noncommunist left.
The stories Schlesinger tells and the characters he recalls are vivid. After graduating from Harvard in 1938, Schlesinger went to Cambridge University on a Henry Fellowship just as Chamberlain was disgracing himself at Munich. He met Harold Laski but argued with the radical political scientist about his soft views on the Soviet Union. At the opening of a play called "On the Frontier," the authors, Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, sat directly in front of Schlesinger Auden scribbling notes to Isherwood (which Isherwood could not read in the dark) and furiously smoking Camels, while John Maynard Keynes stared down impassively from a balcony.
Back home, Schlesinger plunged into work on what became his Pulitzer prize winning "The Age of Jackson" (he won a second Pulitzer, in 1966, for his participant's history of the Kennedy administration, "A Thousand Days"). Kept out of the draft by poor eyesight, he worked for the Office of War Information, eventually returning to London for the Research and Analysis branch of the OSS. Schlesinger politely rejects the Tom Brokaw idea of "the greatest generation": "Like all wars, our war was accompanied by atrocity and sadism, by stupidities and lies, pomposity and chickens__t."
Schlesinger can be self-important (the dinners on Martha's Vineyard with movie stars, the lunches at Manhattan's Mortimer's restaurant with the society crowd). He indulges the old New Deal intellectual's habit of bashing business and businessmen in an almost recreational way. (At one point he blithely equates capitalism with sexism and racism.) But even his smugness has a certain hilarious pungency. He records the time in London toward the end of the war when a V-1 bomb fell close by; everyone else in his office fell to the floor, but as a coworker's journal noted, "Arthur... boldly looked out the window." Mr. Toad was brave.
Now retired from teaching, Schlesinger lives with his wife, Alexandra, in a Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River. He is just sitting down at his computer to write the second volume of his memoirs, due out in two years. "I try to write about myself as if I were writing about someone else," he says. "But all history is subjective." His memoir is a historian's dance to the music of time.