An excerpt from
An Intellectual Biography
David S. Brown
In a liberal society the historian is free to try to dissociate myths from reality, but that
same impulse to myth-making that moves his fellow man is also at work in him.
—Richard Hofstadter, 1956
There is a certain mystique to Richard Hofstadter. For nearly thirty years, the legend goes, he wrote the best books for the best publisher, won the best prizes, and taught in the best city, at the best school, at the best time. Among historians, The American Political Tradition, House of Knopf, Pulitzer, New York, Columbia University, and postwar America evoke a hazy attachment to a lost world of scholarly giants confident in the curative powers of the enlightened mind. This was a world raised in the collective memory of the Depression thirties, tormented by the anti-intellectualism of the McCarthy fifties, and rejected in the student wars of the radical sixties. Along the way, American society changed and historical writing changed, too. The older generation’s preference for exploring the politics and ideas of elite personalities yielded before a broad canopy of studies focusing on race, class, and gender that revolutionized the academy’s presentation of the past. Now, as the last great historians of the postwar period leave the scene, it seems particularly useful to candidly assess the greatest among them. Richard Hofstadter’s career as a professional historian paralleled the heyday of twentieth-century liberalism (1933-68). Tracing his life reveals a complex tapestry of internal and external motivations that merged to produce a uniquely insightful mind, alert to the promise and perils of American democracy.
As the academy moved to the left, the nation’s political culture lurched to the right, leaving liberals clinging to an ever-shrinking center. That Hofstadter, a symbol of the postwar consensus, is still commonly quoted in the pages of the nation’s most popular general interest and political periodicals attests to his unusual hold on the public’s imagination. More than three decades after his untimely death from leukemia at the age of fifty-four, legions of journalists and Internet bloggers routinely adopt social-psychological concepts—status anxiety, paranoid style, anti-intellectualism—popularized by Hofstadter. Among professional historians, only the distinguished Progressive thinkers Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard and postwar notables C. Vann Woodward and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., made as lasting impressions on their culture. Like these men, Hofstadter exhibited an enviable ability to connect with a large, critical, and politically conscious readership. He shared further their striking intellectual charisma and penchant for producing “relevant” scholarship that both reflected and shaped the course of twentieth-century liberal thought.
More than any of his peers, Hofstadter was sensitive to the increasingly urban and ethnic character of American life. Eager to embrace the future rather than commemorate the past, he rejected the conventional signposts that had for so long given direction to American civilization—a culture of capitalism, individualism, and isolationism. These established values, he knew, had long served Americans eager to define themselves as a Protestant, farming people. But the times no longer supported this vision—nineteenth-century liberalism collapsed in the 1930s. Its failure to solve either that decade’s industrial crisis or the ideological schisms that prefaced fascism’s war on the West and communism’s hold in the East elicited from Hofstadter a sharp intellectual response. His criticisms frequently drew blood and aroused strong opposition from both conservatives and progressives. And they had good reason to worry. Unencumbered by deep roots in the native soil of his immigrant father’s adopted country, Hofstadter enlisted the past to reveal the failings of a time-worn political tradition and by inference highlight the promise of what he believed was a more humane, cosmopolitan, and pluralistic postwar liberalism. Anglo-Saxonism and agrarianism were out. Ethnic diversity and modernity were in. As the old codes gave way, America’s need for fresh heroes and new perspectives encouraged Hofstadter to rewrite its history as a prelude to moving its culture.
In the pages of his most popular books, Hofstadter championed a thoughtful and pragmatic social philosophy sympathetic to the welfare state reforms initiated by the New Deal. To describe his views as essentially relativistic, however, is to miss the point. Hofstadter respected history, took it on its own terms, and according to the merits of evidence, demonstrated an admirable responsiveness to rethinking earlier positions and revising earlier statements. His controversial experimentation with the social sciences in the 1950s came from an urgent desire to understand the past more fully and accurately, to expand historical inquiry beyond the economic interpretations favored by the previous generation in order to entertain a broader and yet more subtle scope of human activity. In tracing the psychology and emotional needs of his subjects, Hofstadter hoped to make history at once more complex and more clear. Above all, he delighted in lucid, unsentimental thinking and solid argumentation; indeed, they formed the foundations of his own work.
Social environment inevitably intrudes upon historical analysis, however, and so we must appreciate not simply the author’s work, but also the public and personal circumstances that sustained and gave meaning to his efforts. “Before you study the history,” one commentator advised, “study the historian. . . . The historian, being an individual, is also a product of history, and of society; and it is in this twofold light that the student of history must learn to regard him.” Hofstadter referred to this paradox as the historian engagé—the participation of a scholar in the events he recorded. Involvement, no doubt, sacrificed a scientific pose, yet, as he knew from firsthand experience, it also provided the writer with a surfeit of fresh insights and new perspectives.
Upheaval too, can abet the imagination. Hofstadter’s formative years were witness to the abrupt failure of long-established moral, intellectual, and political currents in American life. The fragility of the times undoubtedly shaped its survivors. Two world wars, the Great Depression, Nazi-Soviet pact, Holocaust, and early stirrings of the cold war served as the somber context for Hofstadter’s first three decades. These turbulent days drew him into a deep and meaningful engagement with a radically altered postwar world. As the old liberalism expired in the twin failures of Hooverism and isolationism, he felt free to challenge the dominant outline of American history.
Identity played a vital and no less significant role in contextualizing Hofstadter’s scholarship. Half Jewish, he was part of the first wave of intellectuals to incorporate secular, cosmopolitan, and universalist perspectives into his work; as such he served as a thoughtful agent of change in a nation rapidly moving away from its Protestant moorings. And this required a rather explicit break from the way American historians customarily handled their subject. Hofstadter found in earlier schools of historical writing a Wasp bias that favored Anglo-Saxon preferences over more nuanced and culturally diverse narratives. His rebellion against the dominant trends of prewar historiography occurred as others close to him remained committed to the inherited past. In 1942 Hofstadter’s most influential graduate teacher, Merle Curti, announced his departure from Columbia’s Teachers College to accept a position at the University of Wisconsin. Illinois native and Columbia colleague Allan Nevins regretted his friend’s impending absence, but still congratulated Curti on a kind of moral upgrade of station by moving to the nation’s heartland. He warmly extolled the virtues of Madison: “Your children will have a better community to grow up in than any in or near New York. The Middle West is our authentic America.” Hofstadter never shared this opinion or the nostalgia that lay behind it. He came from Buffalo, an ethnically mixed city lacking a dominant identity, his sense of ambiguous geographical origins further sharpened by the fact that American historians traditionally came from New England or the Midwest. And this fueled his creativity. “I can never wholly identify with any collectivity,” he remarked late in life. “This kind of marginality is by now a more general American experience; so today I am not an unrepresentative American.”
Hofstadter’s identification (and fascination) with the odd edges of his society merged with a heightened awareness of human weakness—including his own. A hypochondriac, Hofstadter, his son Dan recalls, was “a cheerful melancholic. What I mean is that he was not what is commonly known as a manic-depressive, but rather that his cheerfulness held his melancholia in solution, as salt may be dissolved in water.” According to Columbia historian Walter Metzger, Hofstadter’s temperamental divide informed his published work. “There was,” he insisted, “a manic, slightly manic, slightly depressive quality in his writing style.” Even a cursory reading of Hofstadter’s books reveals that he frequently—and sometimes carelessly—overplayed his findings. This was in part a literary tactic designed to draw attention to his scholarship by garnishing it with a rhetorical bite that made it impossible to ignore. At a deeper level, however, it touched upon certain internal concerns that enlivened his work but chipped away at the scholar’s quest for balance. In weak moments he lost sight of the American stage altogether and projected the great evil of his day—fascism—across the national landscape. His critical (and funny) portrait of Theodore Roosevelt in The American Political Tradition made TR into a kind Mussolini lite. In The Age of Reform he accentuated with too few qualifications the anti-Semitic side of midwestern populism, and in 1964 described the uber conservative Barry Goldwater’s winning of the Republican Party nomination in language that evoked the coming to power of Adolf Hitler: it “gives him a strong position from which to form a new kind of political union, which will be based on jingoism, economic ultra-conservatism, and racial animosity.” These examples—and there are many more—make it hard to escape the impression that beyond the playfulness there was a slightly erratic and perhaps slightly paranoid side of Richard Hofstadter that surfaced in his work.
The historian H. Stuart Hughes believed that Hofstadter’s apparent premonition of an early death explained his anxieties. “One has the impression that there are some people who have a pessimistic attitude towards life and their own health that suggests that they are destined to die young, and I think this was true in Dick’s case. There was a very deep running pessimism in his attitude.” Dan Hofstadter adds that “the death of his mother and then of my mother, left him in a state, I believe, of unresolved discomforts, none of which were imagined—he was simply aware of his bad heredity and bad luck. He seemed at times to feel dogged by a malign providence.” And this doubt spilled over into his scholarship. Reading Hofstadter, one quickly notes his lack of faith in the public’s commitment to political pluralism and intellectual freedom. It was an astute rather than crippling judgment that aligned with his way of looking at the world. “Dick had a strong sense of human limitations and was not at all sentimental about human fate,” noted William Leuchtenburg. “One day he and I were walking across the Columbia campus on 116th Street. I was talking enthusiastically about how psychotherapy can change people for the better, and Dick shook his head and cited [the psychoanalyst Otto] Fenichel to me as demonstrating how our lives are irrevocably shaped by the cards we are dealt in infancy.”
Hofstadter’s cultivated, necessary detachment found an important counterbalance in his scholarly vocation. “He was a very fragile, not very brave person, who became brave in his work,” Dan Hofstadter maintains. “He struck a workable truce with his fears.” The juxtaposition between interior and exterior could be confusing. “When you met him,” one Hofstadter student remembered, “you didn’t have a sense that this was Richard Hofstadter. You didn’t have the sense that you were in the presence of a distinctive mind whose work had really changed the face of American historiography.” In fact, he played different roles before different audiences. A talented mimic, he entertained brilliantly at intimate social settings, impersonating comedians, politicians, and the more starchy historians he encountered at professional gatherings. This was neither a precious nor private talent. Hofstadter openly communicated a genius for fearless exposure, perceptive play, and bold commentary through his scholarship. A quiet and in some ways distant man, he came alive in the motion of performance, and this included the liberating freedom of the open page.
This biography is naturally an extended conversation with the formal writings of Richard Hofstadter. It is also attentive, however, to the personal and private circumstances that shaped his work. An exploration of Hofstadter’s inner life provides an indispensable tool for evaluating his scholarship and politics within the context of his sense of identity. If we approach Hofstadter only through his books and reputation, we are in danger of leaving much out; of forgetting that this quintessential “ New York Jewish intellectual” was actually christened in his mother’s Lutheran faith, and absorbed a host of cultural references rooted in the rhythms and traditions of the nation’s interior. His background, in other words, had deep and important connections with the Protestant, property-rights tradition that he wrote against. When Hofstadter arrived in Manhattan in the autumn of 1936, his western New York origins yielded a wonderful sense of perspective that he always cherished. It protected him (though less than he imagined) from the incestuous academic circles, stale debates, and provincial attitudes that sometimes constricted intellectual life in the East. In a letter to David Riesman written in the fifties, Hofstadter suggested that New York intellectuals were out of touch with American life and culture West of the Hudson. They would benefit, he continued tongue not completely in cheek, from long sabbaticals in Kansas, North Dakota, Utah—or Buffalo.
People—like places—also influenced Hofstadter. His first wife, the novelist Felice Swados, played an instrumental role helping her husband forge a relationship with the Left. Her death in 1945—the year the Second World War ended and the reforms of the New Deal expired—coincided with Hofstadter’s growing disenchantment with the political radicalism that he first discovered at the University of Buffalo. Eighteen months after Felice’s death, he married Beatrice Kevitt, an editor who proved immensely helpful “turning a good writer into a masterful writer.” She further arranged her family’s physical settings with an eye toward encouraging Hofstadter’s scholarly routine. Productive working summers on Cape Cod complemented a home on the Upper West Side receptive to the comings and goings of her husband’s friends, colleagues, and graduate students.
As Hofstadter’s private affairs stabilized, so did his professional fortunes. In 1945 he was teaching at the University of Maryland—then considered something of an academic backwater—for a paltry salary, and his one book to date, Social Darwinism in American Thought, had earned good reviews but seemed destined to be read by only a limited, academic audience. He was, moreover, struggling with a terrible private crisis as a widower separated from his infant son, then being cared for by family in Buffalo. Facing an uncertain future, he considered leaving the academy for a career in journalism. Within a year and a half, however, his circumstances changed dramatically. Remarriage allowed Hofstadter to bring Dan to New York, where he had accepted a position at Columbia University. In time, financial success—trips to Europe, private schools for his two children (a daughter, Sarah, was born in 1952), the Cape home—followed and he fell into a comfortable role as one of America’s most popular historians. These personal and professional relationships were the touchstones of Hofstadter’s adulthood. And when the accolades began to pile up he took them in stride, bemused but not overly impressed. “Dick,” wrote the cultural critic Irving Howe, “became for me a model of what the scholar-intellectual ought to be, and I tried to learn from him. . . . He worked hard and wanted to write good books, but he was wonderfully free of that grating aggression which is so frequently declared the spring of American success. Modest and humane, but above all without the need to impose himself that seems a special curse of intellectuals. Dick Hofstadter set an example that might yield a moral education. There was profit even in his silence.”
The modesty and humane sensitivity referred to by Howe underscores a paradoxical trait in Hofstadter: he combined a deferential exterior with opinionated and fiercely independent judgments in his professional work. A highly evolved sense of humor linked the two qualities together. “He was basically a quite proper, even conventional person,” Dan Hofstadter recalls. “His humor was contagious and I believe it sprang largely from irreverence.” Readers familiar with the sharply drawn portraits of politicians in The American Political Tradition will recognize the accuracy of Dan’s observation that among family and friends his father “had a sly way of diminishing public figures by mimicking certain silly signature phrases of theirs.” Hofstadter’s imitation of FDR was so dead-on that his first wife encouraged him to perform at comedy clubs.
Richard Hofstadter did not live a long life—he was born in 1916 and died in 1970—and he devoted little of it to self-promotion. “There was a delicacy that prevented [his] making of personal claims upon others,” wrote two of his students, “and that excluded any sense of proprietorship over their work. It was the work itself that mattered, not his relationship to it. Discipleship was a thing he never asked for, probably because it never occurred to him.” Accordingly, there is no Hofstadter school. Moreover, the years have taken their toll and most historians today know Hofstadter through his books rather than by personal contact. Their memories are of publications, not of a man, and one must have some insight into both to appreciate what Hofstadter was trying to accomplish with his scholarship. For as my research led me beyond secondary sources and into first Hofstadter’s private papers and later the homes of those who knew him best, it became clear that his published work reflected the personal interests and ideological concerns of their author. Each affirmed and gave coherence to the other.
More than a historian, Hofstadter was a product of his times, and the life he led offers valuable commentary on a number of salient topics that continue to shape our lives: the impact of eastern European immigration; the rise and fall of the American Left; the emergence of McCarthyism and the “radical” Sun Belt Right; the spectacular growth of higher education that culminated in the student movement of the sixties; and a fleeting but influential Upper West Side world anchored at Columbia University. Hofstadter was, Daniel Bell reminds us, “the historian of [the postwar] generation.” And the passage of time has done little to detract from his importance as a leading interpreter of American liberalism. Considering that Hofstadter wrote history with such consummate attention to his own age provides an opportunity to explore not merely the scholarly and literary value of his writings, but also the hopes and frustrations of these fascinating and critical years.
By the end of the great twenties bull market, immigrant America had found its first voices in politics (Al Smith), law (Felix Frankfurter), and aesthetics (Meyer Schapiro). But it was still searching for someone to write its history. Ideas moved Hofstadter more than demography, and the diversity of thought represented by this population proved crucial in forming his historical judgments. And these were original ideas that broke abruptly from the nation’s long-standing prejudice against urban life. Thomas Jefferson’s famous mandate that “the mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body,” still resonated powerfully in a country that celebrated Frederick Jackson Turner’s loving tribute to the land—the Frontier Thesis. In his famous 1893 address, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner stated that American democracy was a product of frontier individualism. Like Jefferson, he favored the western farmer over the eastern—and increasingly immigrant—factory worker. In the twentieth century, however, the city stood poised to claim a more significant role in public affairs, even as its expanding influence aroused the resentment of traditional ethnic groups. Concerned that a resurgent Right menaced the fresh but fragile gains carved out by the new liberalism, Hofstadter’s criticism of McCarthyism—populistic, paranoid—captured the tension of the two Americas and made him an urbane critic of the masses to some, and a prickly opponent of democracy and public protest to others.
Some commentators have asserted that Hofstadter did not really understand conservatism, or its true place in the panorama of American politics. The American Political Tradition let the eccentric John Calhoun carry the case for nineteenth-century conservatism—a telling selection in a book that found no place for Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Charles Evans Hughes or Henry Stimson. In retrospect it seems clear that Hofstadter’s work on the political Right revealed as much about the insecurities of the liberal center as the ideological extremism of its opponents. The issues that galvanized many of the constituencies designated by Hofstadter as “anti-intellectual”—the Korean War, concern for individual rights in an age of burgeoning government power, fear of nuclear annihilation—are absent in his scholarship, lost in the struggle to place history on the side of the postwar consensus.
Hofstadter’s devotion to the new liberalism was not unique among cold war historians. Profoundly influenced by FDR’s successful crusades against economic depression at home and Nazi tyranny abroad, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s influential The Age of Jackson (1945) and Eric Goldman’s acclaimed Rendezvous with Destiny (1952) emphasized the efficacy of vigorous executive authority in the American past. Though important distinctions separate Hofstadter and these men—Schlesinger and Goldman served as special advisors to presidents, an unthinkable situation for the power-wary Hofstadter—they collectively popularized postwar liberalism in their books. But Hofstadter never excused the country’s internal defects. His criticism of racial segregation and the Vietnam War are matters of public record and, unlike Schlesinger, he respected but never revered Roosevelts or Kennedys. Yet, his confidence in liberalism to both perpetuate the reforms of the thirties and fend off the Far Right clearly made its way into his scholarship. And there was a cost. Nation-building, abuse of the national security state, and imperial presidencies crippled the liberal experiment and produced in its path a sharp and still ongoing reaction.
The long-term prospects of the New Deal order, Hofstadter knew, were more tentative and less secure than many suspected. While the Columbia literary critic Lionel Trilling announced in 1950 that “nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation,” Hofstadter strongly dissented. The global catastrophes of the thirties and forties had, he believed stirred up powerful feelings of discontent in America to be felt for years to come. While the consumer paradise of the twenties offered an artificial sense of calm, he wrote in the introduction to The American Political Tradition, the cumulative impact of unemployment and war resulted in a curious mixture of nostalgia, insecurity, and pessimism. Where did this leave liberalism? Memories of Europe’s turn toward totalitarianism were painfully fresh, and in the psychological anguish of the American mass mind, Hofstadter felt, lay the seeds of reaction, repression, and red-baiting.
Postwar liberalism was by no means perfect, but its defenders would hasten to point up its more constructive contributions and ask if political attitudes since 1968 have advanced equally inclusive and pragmatic visions of American life. The patient containment of cold war tensions—no Far Left appeasement, no Far Right rollback—appears in light of the early 1990s implosion of the USSR, a safe and successful end to the great ideological split between communism and capitalism. In domestic politics liberals regularly operated as the party in power and sought a consensus or (to use Hofstadter’s term) “comity” that recognized the good will and loyal opposition of its partisan rivals. Though his work routinely questioned the attitudes and motives of American conservatives, Hofstadter embraced the two-party system as a valuable hedge against political extremism. When Barry Goldwater’s Sun Belt Right surrendered to Johnson liberals and their centrist allies in the 1964 election, he felt the system had worked. But then came Vietnam, Watergate, and twenty-four-hour cable news. The slash-and-burn campaigns that pass as political discourse in our own times would have offended and depressed Hofstadter, for they emphasize what divides rather than unites Americans. The festishization of conflict has obscured the value of consensus.
Historical circumstances aside, any formal evaluation of Richard Hofstadter must come to terms with his rare gift for literary expression. Rather than churn out highly specialized monographs read by graduate students and warehoused in academic libraries, he expected his books to ripple through the culture. Their popularity and influence were signs of the times and reflected Hofstadter’s ability to engage a wide range of feelings, prejudices, and emotions from both liberals and nonliberals. He recognized that the older Jeffersonianism was rapidly giving ground to a modern Rooseveltian state that prized secularism, cooperation, and cosmopolitanism. Some changes, of course, proved more permanent than others. To look back upon Hofstadter’s lost world of liberalism today—from the vista, that is, of a conservative age—is to recall its surprising fragility. To understand its weaknesses as well as its strengths we must appreciate the ideas and politics—and history—that it produced.