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Richard Hofstadter

An Intellectual Biography

Richard Hofstadter (1916-70) was America’s most distinguished historian of the twentieth century. The author of several groundbreaking books, including The American Political Tradition, he was a vigorous champion of the liberal politics that emerged from the New Deal. During his nearly thirty-year career, Hofstadter fought public campaigns against liberalism’s most dynamic opponents, from McCarthy in the 1950s to Barry Goldwater and the Sun Belt conservatives in the 1960s. His opposition to the extreme politics of postwar America—articulated in his books, essays, and public lectures—marked him as one of the nation’s most important and prolific public intellectuals. 

In this masterful biography, David Brown explores Hofstadter’s life within the context of the rise and fall of American liberalism. A fierce advocate of academic freedom, racial justice, and political pluralism, Hofstadter charted in his works the changing nature of American society from a provincial Protestant foundation to one based on the values of an urban and multiethnic nation. According to Brown, Hofstadter presciently saw in rural America’s hostility to this cosmopolitanism signs of an anti-intellectualism that he believed was dangerously endemic in a mass democracy. 

By the end of a life cut short by leukemia, Hofstadter had won two Pulitzer Prizes, and his books had attracted international attention. Yet the Vietnam years, as Brown shows, culminated in a conservative reaction to his work that is still with us. Whether one agrees with Hofstadter’s critics or with the noted historian John Higham, who insisted that Hofstadter was “the finest and also the most humane intelligence of our generation,” the importance of this seminal thinker cannot be denied. As this fascinating biography ultimately shows, Hofstadter’s observations on the struggle between conservative and liberal America are relevant to our own times, and his legacy challenges us to this day.

Read an excerpt.

316 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Biography and Letters

Education: Higher Education

History: American History, History of Ideas


“Eventually, most wised-up readers of history come to agree with the advice of E. H. Carr, cited and honored by David S. Brown, that ‘Before you study the history, study the historian.’ The payoff of Brown’s effort comes in Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, an incisive interpretive profile.”

Carlin Romano | Chronicle of Higher Education

“[In] his intelligent and stimulating book. . . . Brown admirably balances respect for his subject with critical distance and persuasively makes the case that the ambiguousness of Hofstadter’s legacy is inseparable from his continuing interest. . . . At his best, Hofstadter remains vitally alive and endlessly instructive.”

Sam Tanenhaus | New York Times Book Review

"The most important political book of 2006 that is not a book about politics at all."

E.J. Dionne | Washington Post

"Hofstadters’s achievement, as the great historian of postwar liberalism, could hardly be a more perfect mirror of his age. As David Brown shows in his fascinating new study . . . Hofstadter’s life and times prepared him to be the kind of historian he was. Indeed, the sometimes unsettling insight that drives Mr. Brown’s book is that each generation of historians reads their own experience into the American past, turning historiography into a kind of biography."

Adam Kirsch | New York Sun

"A biography . . . that is not only a revelation, but also a fascinating read. Brown . . . has written an account worthy of Hofstadter himself: wry, humane, and illuminating. . . . Brown perceptively uses Hofstadter’s life as a lens through which to view the rise and fall of liberalism. It becomes clear from this book that Hofstadter was the first great historian of American conservatism, understanding like few on the left the grievances that have always animated America’s right wing."

Jacob Heilbrunn | Washington Monthly

"A truly fascinating story, and very much to the point . . . since Hofstadter’s private life did much to shape the content and thought behind his books. . . . Add to all this Brown’s analysis of each of Hofstadter’s important works, and his book makes for a remarkable tale, well-told, with relevance for our time."

Robert Leiter | Jewish Exponent

"Analytical and critical yet deeply appreciative of Hofstadter’s importance, Brown has written an elegant model study."

John David Smith | North Carolina Historical Review

"At a time when the strange interaction of economic discontents and social resentments yield wierd political furies . . . and the nation finds itself so patently ignorant of, and displaced in, the world at large (while still brandishing blunt power), Brown’s intellectual biography of Richard Hofstadter proves especially opportune."

Howard Brick | Belles Lettres

"Brown has undertaken the task of ’finding the man’ . . . and placing him within multiple contexts of American literary history, American historiography, American cultural history, American ethnic history generally, and American Jewish history particularly. He has succeeded in all his objectives and has produced a rich, skillfully written chronicle of a public intellectual."

Stuart E. Knee | The Historian

"Brown’s study provides a rewarding glimpse into the fascinating life--and a fine commentary on the enduring work--of the inimitable Richard Hofstadter."

James T. Kloppenberg | American Historical Review

Table of Contents

Introduction: Interior, Exterior  
Part I - Education, 1916–1950         
1. Radical Roots           
2. The Twilight of Waspdom     
3. The New American Political Tradition           
4. The Historian as Social Scientist        
Part II - Engagement, 1950–1965      
5. The Age of Reform and Its Critics    
6. The Crisis of Intellect
7. The Paranoid Mind   
Part III - Eclipse, 1965–1970 
8. Rebellion from Within           
9. Conflict and Consensus—Redux       
10. The Trials of Liberalism         
11. A World Full
Bibliographic Essay: In Search of Richard Hofstadter    
Sources: Archives, Interviews, and Correspondence     
Students of Richard Hofstadter

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