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Hofstadter Lives: Political Culture and Temperament in the Work of an American Historian

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 27, Number 2, June 1999
pp. 334-348 | 10.1353/rah.1999.0039

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Hofstadter Lives:
Political Culture and Temperament in the Work of an American Historian

Unless they have a professional interest in historiography, most contemporary historians of the United States take a rather condescending view toward their predecessors from earlier generations. On occasion, an individual author from the past is credited with anticipating the future course of scholarship (W.E.B. DuBois’s work on Reconstruction being a prime example). But, otherwise, we tend to regard recent works on any popular subject as being more enlightened in tone, more sophisticated in method, and, post-modernist cavils aside, more likely to produce a balanced, inclusive portrait than our intellectual ancestors were capable of producing. Graduate students learn to avoid putting forth a “Whiggish” interpretation of history, but when it comes to evaluating historical scholarship itself, both they and their professors almost invariably prize the new and seemingly original over earlier efforts to understand the same matters.

This is particularly true in regard to the so-called “consensus” or “counter-progressive” scholars who were a formidable intellectual presence from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Since the early 1970s, when most historians took the Thompsonian turn toward empathetic studies of ordinary people in struggle against their social superiors, few have glanced back in positive ways at the work of scholars like Louis Hartz, Oscar Handlin, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. When discussed at all, such authors are typically derided for identifying, even celebrating, a unitary and distinctive American “character” and “ideology” articulated mainly by powerful white men. 1

But the not-so-benign neglect of what is sometimes referred to, rather thoughtlessly, as an “elitist” group of intellectuals can obscure figures who ought to be better understood, even appreciated. Such is the case with Richard Hofstadter, the historian whose work leads off nearly every discussion of this once respected cohort. 2

During the 1950s and 1960s, there was no more admired historian in the United States. Author of six major books, numerous substantive articles, and several important anthologies, Hofstadter rode the crest of the boom in the [End Page 334] humanities and social sciences in that Golden Age of academic hiring and prestige. His writings were constantly debated among scholars, frequently cited in the media, and widely read—and not just by professors and their students. The book that made his national reputation—The American Political Tradition—sold over a million copies, and even his first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, a revision of his dissertation, sold over two hundred thousand. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for History and many other honors. In an authorial career that spanned just over three decades, Hofstadter achieved a dual renown rare for any scholar, then or now: great influence among his fellow practitioners and great popularity with the reading public. Among historians of the U.S., only Charles Beard could claim as much—Beard, whose works (not coincidentally) inspired Hofstadter’s first published writings and with whose intellectual and political legacy Hofstadter continued to struggle throughout his career. 3

Twenty-eight years after his death, Hofstadter has fared somewhat better than his erstwhile peers among the so-called consensus scholars. Current scholars afford him a measure of respect, and intelligent review essays on his work appear every few years in major journals. 4 Still, he is often regarded as an elegant ruin from a benighted age, an intellectual temple constructed from old-fashioned materials. Usually, Hofstadter’s work is brought up in order to measure how far we have come from his views and methods. Among students of Populism, it was, until quite recently, axiomatic to chastise Hofstadter for tarring an honorable, mass democratic movement with the broad brush of irrationality and anti-modernity. 5 Among students of progressivism, Hofstadter’s talk of status anxiety among an old middle class is regarded as quaint at best. And his longest book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, one he called “a largely personal” work, is today considered something of an elitist curiosity—and is seldom read. 6

Few contemporary scholars actually condemn Hofstadter—the quality of his intellectual personality, what two colleagues termed “a kind of innate dignity that made it unnecessary for...