Richard Hofstadter: Seeing History From the Center

Historians in the News

John H. Summers teaches intellectual history at Harvard. His biography of C. Wright Mills will be published by Oxford University Press.

[Review of Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, by David S. Brown. University of Chicago Press, 291 pages, $27.50.]

Richard Hofstadter spent most his adult life in the “Upper West Side Kibbutz,” an area of Morningside Heights bounded by Claremont Avenue, Riverside Drive and Columbia’s Hamilton Hall. Of the eminences who inhabited this neighborhood in the 1950’s—Daniel Bell, Peter Gay, Irving Kristol, Lionel Trilling—Hofstadter achieved the most impressive mix of critical and commercial success.

He published prodigiously: more than a dozen major books, collections and anthologies; a textbook that introduced thousands of college students to history; plus a handful of first-rate ruminations laid away in the magazines and journals. The American Political Tradition (1948) sold 400,000 copies in its first two decades. The Age of Reform (1955) and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) each won the Pulitzer Prize. Even lesser volumes called out high praise. Gore Vidal described The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965) as “a most engaging essay” and commended Hofstadter as one the “best contemporary critics” of “the collective madness of the electorate.” In 1970, Hofstadter signed a contract with Knopf, his longtime publisher, for a three-volume history of American political culture. The trilogy was to take 18 years to complete, and was to earn the author $1.3 million in today’s dollars, according to David Brown’s new biography.

Hofstadter’s reputation is strong among contemporary historians of the United States, and his books still sell briskly. Mr. Brown’s biography should be welcomed accordingly. It’s a quiet book for a quiet life: a childhood in Buffalo as the son of a Jewish father and a Lutheran mother; an early marriage to Felice Swados, a hot-blooded fellow student at the University of Buffalo; emigration to New York City in the middle of the Great Depression; a brief membership in the Communist Party; then graduate school at Columbia, followed by a rise to prominence in the 1940’s and 50’s. No reversals, no scandals, no puzzling discrepancies, no purblind mistakes. From beginning to end, Hofstadter held the confidence of the center. In high school, he was both valedictorian and class president. In 1968, after Columbia University president Grayson Kirk discredited himself, it was Hofstadter who stepped forward to deliver the commencement address to the shattered campus. He’s still the only member of the faculty so entrusted, according to Mr. Brown.

A moderate by temperament and an historian by training, Hofstadter was an intellectual by conviction. The animus of his thought set the life of the mind against “the populistic democracy.” To the activist wing of the left, he resolved the conflict in favor of conservatism, for he insisted on the value of civility and on the need for institutions to uphold it. “In this age of rather overwhelming organizations and collectivities,” he said at the 1968 commencement, “the university is singular in being a collectivity that serves as a citadel of intellectual individualism.” To the activist wing of the right, he transformed dissent into pathology. “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” one of his early essays about McCarthyism, set out to explain “its dense and massive irrationality.” But Hofstadter won his insights into the emotional roots of mass movements from a certain detachment from politics as such. “I can no longer describe myself as a radical,” he said in a 1962 letter, “though I don’t consider myself to be a conservative either. I suppose the truth is, although my interests are still very political, I none the less have no politics.” One of his essays on the Goldwater insurgency, “The Contemporary Extreme Right Wing in the United States,” carried a preface by Nietzsche on the “herd mentality.”...

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