Hofstadter, Richard

views updated May 23 2018


(b. 6 August 1916 in Buffalo, New York; d. 24 October 1970 in New York City), cultural intellectual historian whose work in the 1960s explored conflicts both within the United States and within its historiography, and preserved the concept of free inquiry against the turmoil of the period.

One of two children of a Polish-born secular Jewish father, Emil A. Hofstadter, a furrier, and a Protestant German-American mother, Katherine Hill, he was baptized a Lutheran. His mother died when he was ten, and his maternal grandmother brought him up as an Episcopalian. Hofstadter was educated at the University of Buffalo, where he was mentored by the historian Julius Pratt. He graduated in 1937. He briefly attended the New York School of Law and then transferred as a history major to Columbia University, where he earned an M.A. degree in 1938 and a Ph.D. in 1942. His dissertation, Social Darwinism in AmericanThought, 1860–1915 (1944), was published and won the American Historical Association's Albert J. Beveridge Award.

Hofstadter went to New York City with Felice Swados, a bright fellow University of Buffalo student who later graduated from Smith College. She was from a prominent Buffalo Jewish family and was the sister of the poet Harvey Swados. Hofstadter and Felice married in 1936 and had a son. Felice worked for Time magazine and was immersed in the vibrant political life of the Communist Party. Hofstadter also joined a Communist group at Columbia but grew disenchanted with its regimented beliefs and drifted away from the party by 1940. Hofstadter and his wife became part of the community of Jewish intellectuals. Alfred Kazin called Hofstadter "the most charming fellow he had ever met."

Following teaching positions at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and at the University of Maryland, Hofstadter came back to New York City in 1945. The Alfred A. Knopf publishing house gave him a fellowship to work on a new book. This allowed him to devote attention to his wife, who was stricken with cancer and died in that year. He worked sporadically on his book, which was published in 1948 as The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. The book was a great success, both critically and financially. It is rated by Modern Library as one of the one hundred most influential nonfiction books of the twentieth century. Hofstadter married again on 13 January 1947, this time to Beatrice Kevitt of Buffalo. They had a daughter.

In 1946 Hofstadter began teaching at Columbia University, where he would remain for rest of his life. Hofstadter's career blossomed, as did his writing. His new wife devoted herself to editing his material, and he was immensely pleased with the result. He prided himself as a writer who melded the other social sciences with historical study and was able to do so without the semantics of other disciplines. Ideas and interpretation took precedence over facts for their own sake. Hofstadter was more interested in developing broad concepts. His work became provocative and dominant as he reexamined the work of historians who had founded the base of professional thought on American development. He attacked the agrarian/frontier concepts of Frederick Jackson Turner, the capitalistic monolithic politics of Charles Beard, and the notions of Vernon Louis Parrington that American progressivism was a product of the Midwest. By the 1960s Hofstadter was an established giant in the field of history. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (1955) won a Pulitzer Prize and charged ideas of agrarian nostalgia and stilted nineteenth-century morality as being unable to understand the urban and industrial society that followed 1890. His work was designed to attract a public as well as an academic audience.

The life of the mind and the freedom of ideas were compelling concerns of Hofstadter. He reacted to the assaults on academia during the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy led a government effort to rid American society of Communists, by collaborating on education histories of the growth of academic freedom in 1952 and 1955, and in American Higher Education: A Documentary History, a two-volume work published in 1961. His controversial Anti-Intellectualism in American Life followed in 1963, and again he won the Pulitzer Prize. This provocative work offered the trenchant view that intellectuals were not appreciated in the course of American political history. Hofstadter argued that democratic and egalitarian foundations of the United States actually contributed to the alienation and the distrust of intellectuals. He declared that mass education and emphasis on technical education came at the expense of the mind and eroded the values of the old patrician elite. Hofstadter can be seen here as the intellectual mentor to the American historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, whose intellectual breadth and depth are perhaps most derivative of Hofstadter.

The 1960s were Hofstadter's most prolific years. He wrote The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968); The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780–1840 (1969); and a book of controversial essays entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (1965). In this work, which was part of a lecture in 1962, he examined conspiracy theories. He saw them as related to a crusading mentality that held the notion that all ills could be traced to single evil sources that could be eliminated. Failure to heed the warnings soon enough meant society was finished. The world confronts an apocalypse akin to that mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Hofstadter called this "the rhetoric of the dispossessed." Characteristic of this element was not the absence of facts but rather what he termed "the curious leap of imagination that is made at some critical point in the recital of events."

Hofstadter's thinking was keyed to conflict in history. The clash of ideas and forces excited his writing, and in the 1960s he became more daring as he suggested that the negative impulses in American development—agrarian hostility to the city, racism, anti-Semitism, antiliberalism, parochial anti-intellectualism, and cultural ethnocentrism—were the products of the very environment that produced the idea of democracy. This contradiction engaged him while it often enraged his critics. Hofstadter created an urban view and understanding of American history in which the culture of the city was made both directly and inferentially significant in the making of national life. He suggested that the same environment that produced the American politician Robert La Follette and admirable progressive politics also produced Senator Joseph McCarthy and his assault on the life of the mind.

Hofstadter's histories are beholden to Charles Beard. He inherited that great historian's place in the profession and in the university that had the temerity to dismiss Beard, who refused to compromise academic freedom by recanting his political opinions. Here lay an irony that Hofstadter must have relished, given his championship of the freedom of thought in the university. His work on Beard represented something of historical patricide, for he sought both to demolish and to venerate Beard. Like Beard, he saw history as though under a glass rather than as a physical reality.

Hofstadter's insular view of events was never more exposed than in 1968, when civil rights, free speech, and anti-war issues swept college campuses. Columbia became a sorry example of the weakness of academic institutions; its faculty and administrators meekly surrendered both their offices and their integrity and trooped off the campus to the chorus of taunts and jibes of the raging students who took over the buildings. To save something of themselves, the school, and the community of the mind, Columbia's administration turned to Hofstadter to give the 1968 commencement address. He was the only faculty member ever to be given this task. For Hofstadter, who was shy and retiring when it came to public addresses, it was not a welcome assignment.

Perhaps Hofstadter guessed he was selected to bridge his assessment of radical ideas and conflict of the past with the reality of the radical action of the present. The most raucous and rebellious students marched from the auditorium before he gave his address. Their actions did not distract him from his ivory tower discourse on the university as a peculiar and unique institution dedicated to serve as the "citadel of intellectual individualism." He was, in effect, speaking of himself in his declaration that the university encouraged an independence of the intellect that served society as "an intellectual and spiritual balance wheel." The university was a retreat, a sanctuary of the mind where ideas would always be respected.

In the same year Hofstader wrote a piece on violence for the New York Times in which he posed the argument of America as a violent society and one that decried violence but could not bring itself to control the use of its instruments. He cited D. H. Lawrence's comment on the American soul as being "hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer." The deaths by assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., left society with a cry against violence but a paralysis in action. This fatalistic view of description over prescription of historical events encouraged the American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s succinct statement that the permanence of Hofstadter's "historical writing will rest rather in the grace, subtlety, and elegance of his literary style. History, to Hofstadter, was always a part of literature."

Toward the close of his life, while suffering from leukemia, Hofstadter continued working. He collaborated on American Violence: A Documentary History (1970) and negotiated a contract for a three-volume history of the United States, the first volume of which was published as he left it: America at 1750: A Social Portrait (1971). The disruptive events of the 1960s were discouraging to Hofstadter, who in an interview with Newsweek (6 July 1970) declared his time to be the "age of rubbish." This was a denouement that did not discourage fellow historians from declaring his to be "the finest … most humane historical intelligence of our generation."

Hofstadter died of leukemia. His obituary in the New York Times, although generally complimentary, described him as a man of regular habits, scrupulous discipline, and insulated temperament who "went through life with a contained methodicalness that might dull a less lively intelligence." It characterized him as "a blue-eyed, graying, almost nondescript man who wore clip-on bow ties and was constantly hitching up his trousers." Further, it described Hofstadter as having limited social flair but a decided talent for mimicry. A protest was voiced by Hofstadter's colleague Lionel Trilling, who in an unusual letter to the Times insisted that Hofstadter was anything but nondescript or limited in social flair. Speaking for his colleagues, Trilling declared Hofstadter "one of the most clearly defined persons I have ever known.… An enchanting companion, often memorably funny … open not only to ideas but to people of all kinds." He argued that the obituary possessed a "grudging quality" that should be ignored and attention paid instead to the photograph accompanying it. He declared the photograph an accurate representation of "this remarkable man's grace and charm and luminosity of spirit." The photograph shows Hofstadter with full dark hair and obviously much younger than his fifty-four years.

Biographical works include Lawrence A. Cremin, Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970): A Biographical Memoir (1972); Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, eds., The Hofstadter Aegis: A Memorial (1974); and Susan Stout Baker, Radical Beginnings: Richard Hofstadter and the 1930s (1985). See also Christopher Lasch, "On Richard Hofstadter," New York Review of Books (8 Mar. 1972), as well as Lasch's introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition of The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1998). Essays on Hofstadter include Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., "Richard Hofstadter," in Pastmasters: Some Essays on American Historians, edited by Marcus Cunliffe and Robin Winks (1969); and Daniel Joseph Singal, "Beyond Consensus: Richard Hofstadter and American Historiography," American Historical Review 89 (1984). See also Alfred Kazin, Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), and also Kazin on Hofstadter in American Scholar 40 (1970–1971). See Richard Hofstadter, "Spontaneous, Sporadic, and Disorganized," New York Times (28 Apr. 1968). An obituary is in the New York Times (25 Oct. 1970). Lionel Trilling's letter of response is in the New York Times (5 Nov. 1970).

Jack J. Cardoso

Richard Hofstadter

views updated May 17 2018

Richard Hofstadter

American historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) won two Pulitzer prizes in recognition of his leading role in reinterpreting United States history during the post-World War II period.

Richard Hofstadter was born on August 6, 1916, in Buffalo, New York. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, his mother an American-born Protestant who died when her son was ten. Hofstadter received his undergraduate education at the University of Buffalo, graduating in 1937. He went on to do graduate work in history at Columbia University, completing his M.A. and Ph.D. in 1938 and 1942 respectively. After teaching for four years at the University of Maryland, he joined Columbia University's History Department in 1946 and remained on that faculty until his death in 1970. He was married twice, first (1936) to Felice Swados, with whom he had a son, and then (1947) to Beatrice Kevitt, with whom he had a daughter.

Hofstadter was a highly productive author of works on American political culture, a subject that allowed him to explore in depth both political history and the history of ideas. His first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (1944), was an analysis of how American thinkers attempted to adapt Darwinist ideas to their purposes between the Civil War and World War I. In his second book, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948), his focus shifted from intellectual to political history. The volume, which was made up of a series of essays on American political figures from the Founding Fathers to Franklin D. Roosevelt, sold very well and established his reputation as an able stylist and a skillful interpretative historian.

Hofstadter's iconoclastic bent was a trait for which he came to be widely admired. This was evident in the challenge he laid down to the prevailing view, one inherited from the so-called progressive historians of the early 20th century, that American party battles were based on a clear-cut, dualistic struggle between the "interests" and "the people"—that is, between a conservative elite's selfishness and the democratic aspirations of the general public. By contrast, Hofstadter argued that ideological cleavages had seldom been so sharply defined as the progressive thesis implied and that opportunism and expediency rather than idealism had generally motivated American political leaders of all stripes.

Between 1955 and 1965 Hofstadter's standing in scholarly circles continued to grow as he produced three significant books—The Age of Reform: From Bryan toF.D.R. (1955), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964), and The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (1965)—and won two Pulitzer prizes. The most important of his works from this period was The Age of Reform, a study of the liberal reform tradition from the 1890s to the 1930s. Most previous histories of the Populist and progressive reformers had been written from the reformers' perspective. Hofstadter was careful to acknowledge the positive achievements of the older liberals, but he went on to argue that a close examination of these supposedly idealistic reformers revealed a variety of traits, including tendencies toward nativism and jingoism, that were far from enlightened.

Hofstadter's emphasis on conservative and even retrogressive elements in the liberal reform tradition created something of a sensation in historical circles. Some critics, led by John Higham, suggested that Hofstadter and several other important postwar historians were homogenizing American history, downplaying the conflicts that had separated Americans and substituting a portrait that stressed a bland, middle-class consensus in national affairs. Other scholars, notably Norman Pollack, charged that Hofstadter's exposure of liberalism's supposed deficiencies served to discredit the progressive reform tradition and thus gave aid and comfort to the conservative causes and leaders that were flourishing in the 1950s. Although Hofstadter was certainly interested in describing what Americans had in common, he was not an unthinking defender of an American consensus on bourgeois values. Nor did he think of himself as a conservative simply because he criticized liberalism. On the contrary, he argued that in spelling out liberalism's flaws he hoped to help American progressives put their house in order so that they could preserve the best of their tradition, which he said was his as well, against the attacks being made on it from every direction in the post-World War II period.

Hofstadter's worries about the illiberal mood that prevailed in postwar America were even more apparent in the two major books that followed The Age of Reform. In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life he presented a lengthy and at times tedious diatribe against the hostility he felt American popular culture had displayed toward urbane, cosmopolitan, and intellectually unorthodox views from colonial times into the 20th century. In The Paranoid Style in American Politics he examined the illiberality of a variety of American political movements after the 1890s, giving particular attention to the anti-Communist crusades of the McCarthy era and the militant conservatism of the Goldwater campaign in 1964. Once again, Hofstadter demonstrated his talent for advancing new historical perspectives by arguing that theories of political motivation that stressed rational sources of human conduct had to be supplemented by social scientific insights into the irrational and even unconscious origins of some political behavior.

In the few remaining years of his life Hofstadter continued to be an active publishing scholar. He produced a large volume, The Progressive Historians (1969), in which he discussed the careers and scholarly contributions of Frederick Jackson Turner, Vernon L. Parrington, and Charles A. Beard. The Idea of a Party System, Hofstadter's analysis of the virtues of the pragmatic and consensusoriented American party system, was published in 1969. He was beginning work on a projected three-volume study of American life (the unfinished first volume of which was published posthumously as America in 1750: A Social Portrait in 1971) at the time of his death from leukemia on October 24, 1970.

Hofstadter's achievement lay not in founding a school, something he made no attempt to do, but in challenging many of the established historical interpretations of his day. The gracefulness of his writing style and the boldness of his treatment of American ideas, reform movements, and political figures made him one of the most widely read and respected historians of the early postwar period.

Further Reading

The best introduction to Hofstadter's life and work is Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, "Richard Hofstadter: A Progress, " in The Hofstadter Aegis: A Memorial, edited by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick (1974).

Additional Sources

Baker, Susan Stout, Radical beginnings: Richard Hofstadter and the 1930s, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Cremin, Lawrence Arthur, Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970); a biographical memoir, Syracuse, N.Y. National Academy of Education 1972.

The Hofstadter aegis, a memorial, New York, Knopf; distributed by Random House 1974. □

Hofstadter, Richard

views updated Jun 27 2018


HOFSTADTER, RICHARD (1916–1970), U.S. historian. Hofstadter was born in Buffalo, New York. After teaching at the University of Maryland he joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1946 and was named professor in 1952. His American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948) synthesized the critical views of classic figures, rejecting Theodore Roosevelt, for example, as paranoid. The Age of Reform from Bryan to fdr (1955), which won a Pulitzer Prize, saw reformers as looking back to an archaic Jeffersonian ideal unsuited to modern needs. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) also won several awards. The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965) emphasized right-wing failings. Hofstadter was a coauthor of The Development and Scope of Higher Education in the United States (1953), and The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (1955).

[Louis Filler]

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