Richard Hofstadter: His enduring appeal

Historians in the News

RICHARD HOFSTADTER'S ``The American Political Tradition," originally published in 1948 when the author was 32, still sells 10,000 copies a year-an astonishing figure, especially for an essay collection lacking an overarching theme. Yet its sharp biographical sketches have struck generations of readers as revelatory: Hofstadter's Teddy Roosevelt is a bloodthirsty, sham progressive; his Abraham Lincoln a careful cultivator of his own legend as a self-made man. Hofstadter's revisionism is so aggressive, his pen so deft, that his publisher considered titling the volume ``Eminent Americans," after Lytton Strachey's famous hatchet job on British figures.

And that may not even be Hofstadter's most respected book. Alan Brinkley, a historian at Columbia University-where Hofstadter himself taught from 1946 until his untimely death from leukemia in 1970-has called Hofstadter's ``The Age of Reform" (1955), his study of the Populist and Progressive eras, ``the most influential book ever published on 20th-century America." And the title alone of ``The Paranoid Style in American Politics" (1965) is one of the great intellectual memes of our time.

What was it about this scholar, the half-Jewish son of working-class parents in Buffalo, that caused his work to seem so emblematic of its age-among his generation of historians, perhaps only C. Vann Woodward and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. have similar reputations-and so vital that we still read it?

``Intellectual charisma and an eclectic mind," answers David S. Brown, author of ``Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography" (Chicago), in an interview. Of course, lots of historian could be described that way. ``It was also his good fortune," Brown adds, ``to be very in tune with his times-knowing where the country was in psychological terms." As it happens, some of his themes seem presciently in tune with our times, too-tension between rural and urban America, grass-roots distrust of experts and intellectuals, democracy's vulnerability to demagoguery. All of which make Brown's biography, the first of Hofstadter, especially timely.

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Hofstadter had a knack for picking topics that resonated with the present. In the late 1940s, Americans hungered to know how history had got them here-to the world of strong federal power and international influence-and ``The American Political Tradition" offered a handy guide to some of the key turning points in, among other things, the evolving relationship between the national government and big business since the era of the Founders. Franklin Roosevelt had partly improvised the New Deal; now it was up to Americans to build a governing philosophy out of the welter of federal programs, he suggested.

In the 1950s, in the shadow of Nazism, scholars were freshly confronting the dark side of popular political movements. Having absorbed books like T.W. Adorno's ``The Authoritarian Personality," Hofstadter contributed ``Age of Reform," which took on the generation of historians, especially an influential group at the University of Wisconsin, who had idolized the American Populists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as restorers of American democratic ideals, reasserting the rights of farmers against the Eastern political and financial elite....
Read entire article at Christopher Shea in the Boston Globe

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