Tuesday, June 27

Remembering Richard Hofstadter


Years ago in Albuquerque, at a conference rich in themes of American Indian philosophy and the Southwest's Spanish legacy, a local journalist tossed a thought at me that I found epiphanic in its elegant yet caustic common sense.

"The difference between the Eastern establishment and us is really simple and geographic," he said, more or less. "You think American history moves from right to left. We think it moves from left to right, except all those folks on the right started heading in our direction. You read American history like Hebrew. We read it like, if you will, Spanish!"

I'd spent two decades appreciating nuances of socially constructed European philosophy. Hypercritical literary attitudes toward theory came naturally. But I realized at that hotel cafe, with internal shamefacedness, that I'd now caught how even the most basic engine of American history lies in the eye of the Americanist, professional or not.

My opaqueness presumably began in experiencing grade-school civics before the American Revolution became a subfield of "Insurrections in Atlantic Civilization," before American exceptionalism yielded to "We Ain't Nothin' Special"-ism, a time when Crispus Attucks and Phillis Wheatley satisfied the faint impulse toward tokenism. For intellectuals as for everyone else, the hardest feat is to break free of the standard history of one's country and religion. We absorb it at an age when critical skills remain weak, when our vulnerability to "natural" truths is at its peak. As Richard Rorty once remarked, most of us have cartoon versions of history and philosophy in our heads, though their hold on us differs.

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."

In Social Darwinism, Hofstadter "argued that deeply internalized beliefs moved people, for ultimately whoever controlled the prevailing value system — defining God, morality, politics, and patriotism — won the right to apportion rewards." Hofstadter tackled big ideas because he believed big ideas moved American history. As he wrote critically of his title phenomenon in Social Darwinism, it "offered a comprehensive worldview, uniting under one generalization everything in nature, from protozoa to politics." Rarely able to suspend his critical antennae enough to man actual barricades with true-believing radicals, Hofstadter nonetheless brought a Gramscian critique of hegemony to American history.

Big revisionist ideas, and deft use of coinages such as "status anxiety" and "paranoid style," became Hofstadter's signature. Increasingly, Brown says, the proto-public intellectual "expected his books to ripple through the culture." When The American Political Tradition appeared, Hofstadter's distinguished trade publisher trumpeted it for boldly arguing that "all great parties, even the Populists" were "loyal to the twin principles of property and progress." Hofstadter's stinging revisionist view of Jefferson's agrarian vision, faulting it as obsolete for a nation turning, in Brown's words, "urban, industrial, and ethnic," similarly amounted to a sharp attack on received truth.

Not every conceptual airship flew smoothly for Hofstadter. Although his "career-long defense of intellect" led to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life — the title became iconic — some peers felt that in it the author crossed the line from historian to polemicist, to elitist tribal leader defending his flock.

"Hofstadter's emotional involvement in the contest between intellect and egalitarianism," writes Brown, "transformed Anti-Intellectualism into a personal statement" and his "least satisfying work." The book, Brown argues, simply "attacked conventional Midwestern WASP values," from evangelical Protestantism to egalitarian education. Hofstadter always criticized what his biographer calls "the cult of proletarianism." Brown adds that the somewhat bourgeois professor "loathed demands upon the learned class to bow before the moral superiority of the working class." With too much of that attitude apparent in Anti-Intellectualism, even Hofstadter came to feel he had, in Brown's words, "missed the mark."

Hofstadter died of leukemia. Were he alive today, he'd be 90, the same age as John Hope Franklin, with whom he marched in Montgomery in 1965. We might think of Hofstadter as the John Hope Franklin of urban intellectuals and liberals. Franklin bridles when benighted newspaper types describe him as the magisterial scholar of black American history. He counters that the category is American history, in which blacks played a rather big part. Hofstadter, more a wizardly writer than talented archival digger, did similar yeoman's work in creating new narratives with room for America's ethnic populations, workers, and thinkers. His books show that America's history not only can but must be rewritten by each generation because the nation keeps changing. Who we are today permits us to devalue some facts, elevate others, and even shift the plot line.

A Hofstadter student tells Brown, "Discipleship was a thing he never asked for." Brown accordingly concludes that "there is no Hofstadter school." True in the narrowest academic sense. But Hofstadter's spirit persists in every contemporary American historian who sees the subject afresh. One thinks of the rise of scholarship about women of the Revolutionary era, sparked in part by his former student, Linda Kerber, now a leader of the profession. That Hofstadter, dead at 54, retains the authority of a nonagenarian master, confirms that it's not just grade-school versions of history that pack staying power.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle and literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 43, Page B12
Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education