Richard Hofstadter: Get Me Revision!

Historians in the News

... 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 (University of Chicago, 2006), an incisive interpretive profile.

In choosing Hofstadter (1916-70) to explore Carr's rubric, Brown, associate professor of history at Elizabethtown College, fixes on a man who occupied a position continually rewarded by America's intellectual establishment, but not often scrutinized: King of American History. It comes with a chair at a prestigious and preferably Ivy institution, and an open invitation to write for the most prestigious opinion magazines and book reviews. Think Gordon Wood and (still) Arthur Schlesinger Jr., with Sean Wilentz one middle-aged prince. As Brown puts it of Hofstadter, "For nearly 30 years ... 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."

Translation: The hugely influential Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (1944), published when the author was 28, was followed by his extremely significant The American Political Tradition (1948). Pulitzers greeted The Age of Reform in 1956 and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1964. He held a Columbia professorship for 24 years in the dramatic era from World War II's aftermath through McCarthyism and 60s turmoil.

Brown establishes Hofstadter's sparkling achievements, nearly a dozen books in a quarter century of active scholarship. He rightly attributes his subject's fresh slant in a once largely WASP field to growing up the son of a Polish Jewish father and German Lutheran mother and spending his modest early days as a University of Buffalo undergraduate. Although Hofstadter experienced personal tragedy — his first wife, journalist Felice Swados, died of cancer in 1945 when son Dan was a toddler — he kept to his goal of publishing himself out of a University of Maryland assistant professorship that felt like exile after graduate school at Columbia. In 1945, Henry Steele Commager explained, Columbia began a search for "someone who can really take hold of intellectual history and develop this place as a center for the study of American civilization." It tapped Hofstadter over Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The winner began in 1946 and the rest was, in the best sense, revisionist history.

Hofstadter made clear to readers of American history that the mid-20th-century discipline was up for grabs. The miracle of Protestant liberalism announced by George Bancroft and Francis Parkman, the "Jeffersonian liberal" vs. "Hamiltonian conservative" grudge match offered by Vernon Louis Parrington, and Charles Beard's trust in economic causes all stood ripe for rethinking. Hofstadter, writes Brown, proved "a thoughtful agent of change in a nation rapidly moving away from its Protestant moorings" as he became "a leading interpreter of American liberalism." Where Frederick Jackson Turner had famously proffered American democracy as the upshot of frontier individualism, Hofstadter insisted on giving urban America its due.

Hofstadter, Brown asserts, "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." For Hofstadter, Brown summarizes, the WASP worldview was "isolationist, individualistic, nationalistic, and capitalistic," fated to break down "before a sharp cultural realignment shaped by demographic change."...

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