The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing


David Brown teaches history at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing and Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography.

It began in California. Nine summers ago, I flew to the Bay area for research on a biography I was writing of Richard Hofstadter. Not until a few years later would I realize that my days there had provoked an altogether different project – an appraisal of historical thought in the American Midwest. Among my stops, I had arranged an evening interview in Oakland with Sarah Hofstadter, the historian’s daughter. Unfamiliar with the environs I showed up early for our parley, quickly located the address, and had some time to kill. A nearby bookstore drew me inside where I found a copy of My Life with History, the autobiography of John Hicks, a former University of Wisconsin historian who left Madison in 1942 for a Berkeley professorship. Having spent much of that day in the Bancroft Library reading through Hicks’s papers, I thought the memoir might be useful, or at least diverting on the plane ride home. I left for my interview book in hand.

The following day I met with Kenneth Stampp, Hofstadter’s colleague for four years at the University of Maryland and, I learned that day, a student in two of Hicks’s courses at UW. Late in our talk, Stampp seemed to me eager to admonish Hofstadter for his controversial thesis on Populist anti-Semitism without naming either the sin or the sinner. At one point he paused and said in effect, “Vann Woodward told me that he felt he could criticize Dick’s work on Populism after his death only because he had objected to it publically when he was alive.” He then asked if I had read Wisconsin School scholar William Appleman Williams’s review of Hofstadter’s classic 1955 study The Age of Reform? I said that I had not. He said that I should.

On the flight home, the suggestive ethno and geo centric chapter titles in Hicks’s reminiscences – “My WASPish Background,” “Boyhood in Missouri,” “Nebraska,” “Wisconsin, Part I,” “Wisconsin, Part II” – caught my eye. I found equally absorbing his stark self-identification as “a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, small-town, middle-class, midwestern American, one of those who left the country for the city. Of me and of many others like me it could truthfully be said: ‘You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.’ ” Hicks’s conspicuous localism struck me as a rural variation of Hofstadter’s own urban centrism. I was intrigued.

Returning home, I tracked down the Williams review mentioned by Stampp. It was a lulu. Declaring that The Age of Reform “is not history,” Williams dismissed the book as an apologia for “the New Liberals” and accused its author of practicing “good politics” but “weak methodology.” Coming from the Left, he fumed that Hofstadter’s defense of FDR’s reforms and commensurate rejection of an older and more radical Populistic persuasion “makes it . . . easier for the existing centers of power to continue their manipulation of their audience.” The only praise he doled out referenced an earlier Hofstadter book – and that a decidedly removed compliment. The American Political Tradition (1948), succeeded he wrote, largely because “Hofstadter was working with first-rate materials; as, for example, with the research and interpretations supplied by Richard Current on Calhoun, Kenneth Stampp on Lincoln, and Frank Freidel on Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” All of these historians were Wisconsin Ph.D.’s.

Finally, a few months after perusing Williams, I read over Hofstadter’s correspondence with Merle Curti, an important mentor who oversaw his dissertation. In 1942, Curti left Columbia’s Teachers College for a post at the University of Wisconsin (he replaced the ubiquitous Hicks). “The Middle West is our authentic America,” Illinois native Allan Nevins congratulated Curti on his move, “and you will gain something in your point of view from living there.” The letters led me to concentrate briefly on Curti and thus I came upon his 1954 American Historical Association presidential address, “Intellectuals and Other People.” I soon realized it was a rejoinder to Hofstadter’s 1953 essay “Democracy and Anti-Intellectualism in America.” While Hofstadter had warned of a great leveling impulse overtaking Eisenhower-era higher education, Curti’s piece went in the opposite direction, calling for an end to academic elitism. “Some intellectuals,” he argued, “have continued to invite resentment by the way in which they hold their learning. Somehow the impression is conveyed that they feel a moral superiority to the hillbillies, the masses of the people. . . . ” Standing Hofstadter’s argument on its head, he claimed that when American intellectuals partnered with the masses – including the old Wisconsin Idea progressivism and FDR’s more recent “Brain Trust” – they thrived. But when they sought a special status, the pubic quite understandably grew resentful. “March without the people,” Curti quoted Emerson, “and you march into the night.”

The more I researched Richard Hofstadter, the more I recognized that many of his detractors had midwestern ties; and a notable concentration was or had been affiliated with the University of Wisconsin. It appeared equally clear to me that Hofstadter and the social scientists he befriended and collaborated with at Columbia – including Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Robert K Merton – carried on a scholarly debate with the Wisconsinites through books, essays, and reviews. They had much to say to each other. The Columbia School was comprised in the main by men of Eastern European and Russian Jewish background; it embraced the new liberalism, accepted the reigning cold war consensus, and attacked the historical reputation of the Populist movement in America as a precursor to the McCarthyism that challenged their own times. Their views on history and society can be gleaned in The Age of Reform’s imaginative if problematic dissection of the agrarian mind and Bell’s controversial assertion in The End of Ideology (1960) that a classless – and by association conflict free – society loomed ahead. The Wisconsin School, by contrast, counted among its ranks WASP middle-westerners, Turnerians, and Beardians critical of the new liberalism’s peace with a democracy threatening containment state emboldened by imperial presidencies. It denounced McCarthyism, yet never lost faith in the ideal of a people’s republic. Its representative texts included Hicks’s paean to the farmer, The Populist Revolt (1939), Williams’s quasi-Beardian attack on US imperialism, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), and Curti’s defense of Turner’s frontier thesis, The Making of an American Community (1959).

Briefly put, reading Hofstadter’s critics drew me into an exploration of a midwestern historical consciousness that went “beyond the frontier” thesis popularized by Turner to reject American Century capitalism, imperialism, and centralized power. More, the project offered an opportunity to rethink established historiographical “truths,” observe the influence of localism on intellectual life, and study the impact of “place” on the past.

Regional imprinting – even in an academy that prizes diversity – is still a part of our profession. Yet its influence has undoubtedly lessened since what historian Ray Allen Billington once humorously called the “bad old days.” There are all kinds of good reasons to avoid thinking sectionally when building departments, chief among them is the danger of simply perpetuating whatever prejudices and parochialisms have customarily dominated it. And yet there is something to be said for the cultivation of a regional perspective that co-exists in tension with a broader national culture. This too is a kind of diversity. For in writing about the Wisconsin School I found myself attracted less to its ancient traditions born down from Turner, than to its vibrant and conspicuously democratic mid-century critique of an emergent military-industrial complex. As a consequence, I could not help but be moved by George Mosse’s sentimental reflection of his Madison colleagues: “These men cared deeply about the writing of history – it was their lifeblood – and since that time I have rarely witnessed such department disputes about fundamentals. My early years in Madison were lived in the shadow of this remarkable group of men, who influenced my attitude toward my profession and kept an undue presentism at bay. They deserve notice as a group, their time seems long past.”

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Thomas R. Cox - 7/27/2009

A marvelous piece! But the critical view of Hofstadter, his history, and his ilk was hardly the private property of Wisconsin. While in graduate school much further west, a fellow student was grumbling about Hofstadter's parochial view of Populists and anti-intellectualism in America. He said, "the man doesn't know anything about the world west of the Appalachians." To which another graduta e student replied, "Hell, he hardly understands anything west of the Hudson!"