Richard Hofstadter: His strong engagement in politics





In March 1965, a delegation of historians joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama. Weeks earlier, Alabama state troopers had brutally broken up a voting rights march in Selma with nightsticks and tear gas, and King aimed to finish what the protesters had started. The historians, who included the renowned Richard Hofstadter, went south to take a stand. That the normally circumspect Hofstadter struck his tasks at Columbia University and made the trip suggested just how deep the outrage at Jim Crow repression had become.

Hofstadter, in character, acted more the dry wit than the rabble-rouser. At one point, the bus carrying the scholars to the march swerved badly, leaving the professors momentarily shaken and frightened. Hofstadter broke the tension. "If your driving leads to an accident that kills us all," he pleaded with the bus driver, "you will set back the liberal interpretation of American history for a century!"

His tone was, as ever, ironic and humorous, but it was also charged with energy and pride. "I had the feeling that he felt liberated," one of his colleagues recalled, "that he was somehow getting in touch with the past." Hofstadter would have been even prouder had he known that one of the leaders of the original march, John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had been carrying a small knapsack when a state trooper cracked open his skull, and that inside the knapsack was a paperback copy of The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter's most widely read book, published seventeen years earlier.



s David S. Brown claims in this illuminating biography, Hofstadter retains an enormous mystique today, thirty-six years after his death from leukemia at the age of fifty-four. Phrases and concepts that Hofstadter invented to describe and to analyze American politics--"status anxiety," "the paranoid style"-- remain in currency among high-end journalists and pundits. His best books, The American Political Tradition and The Age of Reform, remain on graduate reading lists decades after their publication, models of dazzling prose and interpretive acuity. All but one of his half-dozen other major works remain in print.

In some respects, indeed, Hofstadter's standing has risen since 1970. His fascination with the history of what he called "political culture," the quirks in American politics beyond official platforms and speeches, is now very much in vogue. And no historian of the United States with the same combination of intellectual heterodoxy, literary brilliance, and scholarly sweep has replaced him. Amid the current dizzy political scene--with its snake-oil preachers, and anti-Darwinian Social Darwinists, and Indian casino ripoff artists, and a president whose friends say he thinks he is ordained by God--Hofstadter's sharpness about the darker follies of American democracy seems more urgently needed than ever.

Brown's labors would have been worthwhile had he simply told the man's life story and assessed his work. (The only previous book on Hofstadter confines itself to his leftist youth in the 1930s, including a brief and uneasy membership in the Communist Party.) But Brown goes further, describing Hofstadter's paradoxical mixture of iconoclasm and caution, a personality that managed to submerge melancholy in ambition and a sense of the absurd. Brown's book freshens the worn-out chronicle of the postwar Upper West Side intelligentsia by re-telling it from Hofstadter's playful, eternally skeptical, oddly uninflammatory point of view. Although he was essentially a private intellectual and writer--"I'm not a teacher," he once told his student Eric Foner, "I'm a writer"--Hofstadter emerges here as more engaged in the politics of the 1950s and 1960s than is often remembered. If Brown at times makes his subject seem too reactive, his thinking a product of the larger academic and political world, he captures Hofstadter's evolving thoughts without pigeonholing them; and he attends to how fortune--good, bad, and heartbreaking--altered the course of Hofstadter's achievements.

Above all, Brown helps readers assess Hofstadter as a member of a generation of American historians every bit as important as (and in some respects more so than) the well-known Progressive generation of Charles Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Vernon Parrington, the trio to whom Hofstadter devoted his last full-scale book. Like those earlier scholars, Hofstadter's generation, which included Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and C. Vann Woodward, imagined history as a continuing dialogue between the past and the present. Although many came to the academy as outsiders (Schlesinger being an obvious exception), all were highly respectful of the spirit--if not always the institutions and the rituals--of the scholarly life. ...

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