In 1963, the year British historian E. P. Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class, Richard Hofstadter, whom biographer David S. Brown ranks in intellectual significance in the United States with Charles Beard, won a second Pulitzer [End Page 167] Prize for his iconoclastic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Both men had a profound impact on the writing of history. Each struggled to move beyond the deterministic frameworks of orthodox Marxism by exploring the relationship of socio-economic factors to culture. Both turned to social science for new theoretical perspectives: Thompson to anthropology, Hofstadter to sociology and psychology. Thompson's work remained a "must read," passing from hand to hand among a generation of New Left historians in the United States. But many of Hofstadter's best writings were lumped together rather unfairly by the 1970s generation with the "consensus school," a self-congratulatory genre of historical cheerleading associated most notably with Daniel Boorstin, who celebrated the "genius" of American politics those younger scholars dismissed.
Thompson and Hofstadter were both drawn to history by what the latter described as a "sense of engagement with contemporary problems" (1). Thompson, a member of the Communist Party Historians' Group between 1946–1956, left the party in 1956, but retained his passionate commitment to expanding Marxist analysis. A teacher of adult education in Leeds when he completed Making and founder of the Center for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick in 1965, he inspired generations of social historians.
In contrast, Hofstadter's time on the American Left was brief. Born and educated in Buffalo, he joined the Young Communist League at the University of Buffalo during the Depression and hung out with left-wing students, drawn partly by the charismatic influence of his fellow philosophy student and first wife, Felice Swados (the sister of novelist, poet, and social critic Harvey Swados), whose Jewish-inflected radicalism not only encouraged his activism, but also offered an entrée into the energetic Jewish secularism of this decade.
But by the 1960s writing history in the United States meant immersion in a sociopolitical milieu quite different from Britain, whose intellectual and political landscape was shaped by a labor movement with strong socialist and Communist traditions. If Brown does not explore this comparison, his meticulous "extended conversation" with Hofstadter's writings delivers the tools to do so. Hofstadter well understood the link between his milieu and the history he wrote. Of the 1930s, he noted, the "events of those years no doubt . . . influenced my views on the past." "I know it is risky," he confessed in 1960, but writing history came "out of my engagement with the present."
Prosperity and anti-unionism meant the postwar United States lacked a political context affected by the institutions and social structures of an assertive working class. Initially a critic of FDR—Hofstadter's master's thesis on southern sharecropping indicted his unwillingness to confront southern Democrats over cheap black labor—he lasted only four months in the Communist Party, rapidly discouraged by its dogmatism. McCarthyism proved more disillusioning still. Its irrationalism led him toward non-materialist explanations for political behavior, just like the British Marxists. But while Thompson unearthed a revolutionary tradition embedded in the small acts of working class life, Hofstadter's wariness of mass movements grew. He turned to psychology and notions of status anxiety, gravitating to Horkheimer and Adorno's "authoritarian personality" to explain how ideas functioned in history. Learning much from social science in a collegial relationship with C. Wright Mills at the University of Maryland, his return to Columbia three years after his PhD in 1946 proved critical. "Columbia did not make Hofstadter," Brown notes, "but it stimulated his intellect in a way that no other university in any other city could" (167).
Hofstadter once remarked, "I spent a lot of years acquiring a Jewish identity, which is more cultural than religious" (53). Only half-Jewish, he lacked the ethnic "habitus" that might have enabled his more discerning Jewish graduate students to recognize him [End Page 168] as a fellow Jew. Yet it was among Columbia's liberal Jewish intellectuals that this son of an immigrant intermarriage between an Eastern European Jewish furrier and a German Lutheran mother found a home. Hofstadter was invited into what Daniel Bell called "the West Side Kibbutz," a group that included Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Lionel Trilling, Fritz Stern, Peter Gay, and Walter Metzger. Hofstadter's debt to Morningside Heights was molded by these friends and colleagues.
A sharp critic of capitalism and deeply suspicious of rightwing anti-Communists, Hofstadter also mistrusted "the people" as too easily manipulated. The university became his refuge, where he believed the free exchange of ideas remained crucial to democracy. Beleaguered and confused by the student rebellions of the 1960s, he reserved his sharpest criticism for white students, whose self-indulgent bating of the police he felt threatened academic freedom.
What is missing from Brown's treatment of this period and from much of the biography, however, is an analysis of Hofstadter's views on race. Brown notes his sympathy for black sharecroppers in his master's thesis, his support for the civil rights movement, and his willingness to defend the rights of certain prominent individuals—Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver, for example—who were threatened by the security state. But he barely mentions that Columbia students protested not only the Vietnam War, but the university's plan for a new gymnasium in an African-American neighborhood, displacing black residents and denying them access to the new facility. These students believed the university to be a microcosm of U.S. inequalities. Nor does Brown discuss the debate over racial preferences in the mid-1960s between black intellectuals and liberal, primarily Jewish academics. Here Brown's methodology, which utilizes Hofstadter's published writings to frame his narrative, does not serve him well. In 1964, Columbia graduate Norman Podhoretz, freshly installed editor of Commentary Magazine, launched a roundtable on "Liberalism and the Negro" which, in retrospect, laid bare pluralism's inadequacies, especially with regard to how race worked to block social mobility for African Americans. Several members of the "Upper West Side Kibbutz" eventually joined in a heated conversation with black intellectuals, including James Baldwin and City University psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, which continued into the 1970s. Jewish social scientists including Nathan Glazer, Bell, Lipset, and others brandished immigrant Jewish success as proof of pluralism and opportunity in U.S. society, even for oppressed minorities. They considered African Americans as any other ethnic group, eventually faulting, not the larger society, but the inadequacies of black community institutions. There are hints in Brown's analysis of Hofstadter's last published work, America at 1750, that he took his cues on the emerging racial crisis from his pluralist colleagues in the Upper West Side Kibbutz, but what else did he think about these divisive issues?
Despite these omissions, Brown has captured Hofstadter's intellectual complexity, his brilliance as a writer, thinker, mentor, colleague, and friend, with considerable skill and sensitivity.