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Richard Hofstadter Reconsidered

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 35, Number 3, September 2007
pp. 425-431 | 10.1353/rah.2007.0052

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Few twentieth-century American intellectuals were as influential or as important as Richard Hofstadter. Historians still admire him for the grace of his writing, the depth of his insight, his use of the past to illuminate contemporary issues, and his ability to simultaneously engage a scholarly and a popular audience. One sign of the enduring appeal of Hofstadter's historical imagination is the widespread attention that David Brown's recent biography has attracted. Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography has been reviewed in such publications as New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Nation, New Republic, and Slate. As is often the case with biographies, reviewers have focused not on the merits of the biography itself, but rather its subject. While reviewers have taken the opportunity to reengage with Hofstadter's work and express varying degrees of admiration, the principal themes of Brown's work have gone largely unanalyzed.

Undoubtedly, Brown's ability to attract such attention is in large part due to the book's strengths. In this first full biography of Hofstadter, he has given us an account that is readable, informative, engaging, and provocative. He ties Hofstadter's life to a larger story about the transformation of American society: from Anglo-Protestant dominance to a more urban, secular, ethnic, and cosmopolitan culture. Hofstadter was born and raised in multi-ethnic Buffalo in 1916, the child of a German Lutheran mother, who died when Hofstadter was ten years old, and a Polish Jewish father. Over time, Hofstadter came to identify himself primarily as Jewish, though in cultural not religious terms. Hofstadter's Buffalo background was important, Brown explains, for Buffalo "shared neither the nostalgia of the frontier that shaped the Progressive generation, nor the smart cosmopolitanism that bred its own exclusive traditions" (p. 8). After graduating from the University of Buffalo in 1936, Hofstadter spent most of his adult life in New York City, abandoning law school to earn a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. After spending a few years at his first academic post at the University of Maryland, Hofstadter returned to Columbia and New York in 1946, where he remained until his untimely death of leukemia in 1970. Hofstadter discovered close companions among his Columbia colleagues, particularly those who fell within the set of "New York intellectuals," a group of thinkers, often of Jewish descent, who shared Hofstadter's ironic, skeptical, and modernist outlook.

In Brown's view, Hofstadter's urbane perspective grew directly out of his urban environment. Armed with this particular sensibility, Hofstadter helped transform the American historical profession in the postwar years, challenging the prior dominance of Anglo-Protestant historians. Like other humanities, history was slow to accept Jews, who did not enter the discipline in significant numbers until after World War II. At the University of Wisconsin, labor economist Selig Perlman even warned Jewish graduate students, "History belongs to the Anglo-Saxons. You belong in economics or sociology" (p. 133). As late as 1962, the president of the American Historical Association, Carl Bridenbach, decried the influence of a younger generation of historians "of lower middle-class or foreign origins" (p. 134). Hofstadter himself, Brown reveals, may have been eliminated from consideration for positions at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley in the 1940s in part because he was considered too Jewish. According to Brown, Hofstadter's urban, ethnic background led him to challenge the predominant middle-American bias in historical writing. His ironic perspective introduced skepticism about the American political tradition, particularly its agrarian bias, and helped open the way to a more pluralistic rendering of the nation's history. "Unencumbered by deep roots in the native soil of his immigrant father's adopted country," Brown writes, "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 liberalism" (p. xiv).

Nevertheless, as Brown shows, Hofstadter's cosmopolitanism contained its own form of provincialism. This tendency was particularly evident in Hofstadter's notorious depiction of the Populists as xenophobic anti-Semites in The Age of Reform. Even at the time, many historians recognized that Hofstadter's portrait...



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