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Why Richard Hofstadter Is Still Worth Reading but Not for the Reasons the Critics Have in Mind

David Brown's biography of Richard Hofstadter has attracted an unusual amount of attention for a revised dissertation, riding the wave of nostalgia that surrounds the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and liberal icon of the 1950s and '60s. At the New York Times Book Review, the book was the subject of the longest review of the year, and one of the most admiring, written by the editor himself, Sam Tanenhaus, who declared Hofstadter"more relevant than ever." The New Republic ran an even longer piece by Bancroft Prize winner Sean Wilentz about Hofstadter's"enormous mystique today." That mystique reflects a deeper nostalgia for a time when historians who addressed the political issues of the day (among them Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and C. Vann Woodward) had immense intellectual authority and a wide readership, a time when essays written with style and grace were honored and a time when writing about great white men did not make you look obsolete or reactionary.

The Hofstadter nostalgia boom is also fueled by readers who find in his work a foreshadowing of their own anxiety about the irrationality of populist movements. His feeling that populism posed a danger to democracy seems to liberals and conservatives alike to speak to our own time--as indeed in many ways it does. Many writers seeking to understand the 2004"red state" phenomenon turned to Hofstadter's essays on"status anxiety" and"the paranoid style in American politics"--especially after George W. Bush mobilized his supporters with a good-old-boy rhetoric that was proudly stupid.

There's no question that Hofstadter's writing was wonderful. But his understanding of the American past now seems narrow and flawed, and marked, inevitably, by the preoccupations of a generation that lived through Hitler and Stalin, by a gnawing anxiety that some kind of American fascism, a vicious right-wing movement coming out of the heartland, was not only possible but likely. (Such anxiety has not, to be sure, entirely dissipated among American liberals; early next year journalist Chris Hedges is publishing a book, American Fascists, about the Christian right.)

Hofstadter died in 1970, just as a new generation of historians was transforming the profession by turning away from the study of elites. Inspired by British historians of the working class like E.P. Thompson, and by American New Left historians like Herbert Gutman, they began exploring, and celebrating, how history was made by ordinary Americans: by working-class immigrants in the tenements, the taverns and the factories, and by African-Americans and other oppressed groups. This"history from below" represented a defiant challenge to Hofstadter's kind of history.

But if Hofstadter seems newly relevant today, it's not for the reasons imagined by Tanenhaus and others. Despite his fame and success, he was always more of an outsider than his establishment admirers have understood. He disdained the 1950s celebration of consensus; he was deeply skeptical of the liberal heroes, especially FDR; he was never much of an anti-Communist; and when the student antiwar movement excoriated the hypocrisies and failures of the universities, Hofstadter, virtually alone among his entire cohort, refused to condemn the students and agreed with them on some key issues, even as he rejected their militant tactics. Thus while Hofstadter was in some ways a predictable member of his generation, in others he was politically more complicated and intellectually more surprising. It is these elements, rather than his particular arguments, that make him significant for us today.

Hofstadter was born in Buffalo in 1916 and came of age in the era of the Popular Front. He went to college at the University of Buffalo and became president of his university's chapter of the National Student League, a Communist-led antiwar organization that, according to a government report quoted by Brown,"attempted physical disruption of campus activities which led to arrest, suspensions and expulsions of its members" (foreshadowing his students at Columbia in '68). In his early twenties, he went to Mississippi with his passionate left-wing wife, Felice Swados, and visited black sharecroppers at Delta Cooperative, the subject of a famous series of photographs by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration. His 1938 master's thesis at Columbia was a fierce indictment of the New Deal's Agricultural Adjustment Act for supporting Southern planters rather than poor farmers.

The Spanish Civil War was raging during his graduate school days, and in October 1938 he responded, as many of his peers did, by joining the Communist Party--in his case, the CP unit at Columbia."My fundamental reason for joining," he wrote his brother-in-law,"is that I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it.... I join without enthusiasm but with a sense of obligation." (Brown does not quote the letter, which Eric Foner cites in a chapter on Hofstadter in his book Who Owns History?) Four months later, in February 1939, he quit the party. His reason, according to fellow student Kenneth Stampp (who later achieved renown with his history of slavery, The Peculiar Institution):"He couldn't stand the people." But even after that, in October 1939, he wrote his brother-in-law (in another letter not quoted by Brown):"I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it." In 1941 he got his first full-time job, directly as a result of anti-Communism: He replaced a faculty member forced out by City College because of alleged Communist Party ties: Jack Foner, father of Eric. (Eric would later fill the same chair at Columbia that Hofstadter had held. You might call that the irony of history.) Three years later Hofstadter published his first book, a blistering exposé of capitalist ideology, Social Darwinism in American Thought.

The turning point for Hofstadter was 1945: That year Felice died of cancer, depriving him of the most important leftist connection in his life, and Columbia hired him. He was 30 years old. The transformation from 1930s radical activist to 1950s liberal intellectual was under way.

The American Political Tradition, published in 1948 and widely regarded as Hofstadter's best book, is still selling briskly almost sixty years later: Recently it had an Amazon ranking of 4,400, which would be envied by most historians with books on the market today. (Brown's, for example, was at 22,000 on the same day.) Knopf's 1948 publicity marketed the book as a work of consensus history:"In this age of political extremism, this young and brilliant Columbia historian searches out the common ground among all American parties and factions." In fact the book was more subtle, and much more interesting, than that. Hofstadter wrote the book from a vantage point on the left. While others, like Daniel Boorstin, celebrated consensus, Hofstadter was openly critical. It opens with a description of an"increasingly passive and spectatorial" state of mind in postwar America, a country dominated by" corporate monopoly," its citizens"bereft of a coherent and plausible body of belief" and adrift in a"rudderless and demoralized state."

The book consists of twelve biographical portraits of key American political figures, ranging from the slaveholder John Calhoun to the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, from the free-market Republican Herbert Hoover to the welfare-state Democrat FDR, from Jefferson the patrician to Andrew Jackson the common man. Hofstadter's thesis was that all shared fundamental assumptions about the goodness of private property and the value of"progress." The archaic assumptions of The American Political Tradition are all too evident today. Hofstadter believed he was studying something called"the American mind" when he profiled American Presidents, and that their stories and those of other elite white men were representative of our political tradition. But while presidential biography may be of limited value--to the study, albeit not the marketing, of American history--several of Hofstadter's essays in The American Political Tradition remain compelling works of the genre that have seldom been surpassed.

The contrast with recent presidential biographies, like David McCullough's hagiographic book on Truman, could hardly be more stark. Hofstadter's gaze was intensely skeptical, especially when it was trained on the liberal icon of his own time, FDR: Hofstadter's chapter on him is titled"the patrician as opportunist." He objected to the portrait of Lincoln as a Christ-like figure who died for the sin of slavery, depicting him instead as the master of his own myth and as a canny politician, especially on the question of abolition. The Wendell Phillips chapter remains a revelation--even today, when the left famously dominates academia, who would have the chutzpah to put this abolitionist and socialist on the same plane as Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR? Here we see most clearly the traces of the radical sensibility of Hofstadter's youth. The essay is unique in its frank admiration for a voice of"resistance and rebellion," a champion of the oppressed whose refusal to compromise"forced him into a deeper and deeper isolation" as Reconstruction gave way to the Gilded Age. The chapter ends with an elderly Phillips invited to speak at Harvard, and taking the occasion not to heal the breach with his mainstream critics but rather to indict the assembled scholars for their moral cowardice. Hofstadter's admiration for this stance is unmistakable.

The American consensus that Hofstadter bemoaned in The American Political Tradition was turning more aggressive and suspicious the year the book was published, as redbaiting spread across America. Hofstadter refused an invitation to teach at Berkeley in 1950 because he opposed the loyalty oath imposed by the University of California Regents, but he also refused to condemn the firing of Communists at the University of Washington in 1949. His position was the mainstream liberal one: Communists opposed freedom, so they should be denied teaching jobs. This is problematic for his biographer, because Hofstadter himself had joined the Party as a student, and other people who had done the same, like Daniel Boorstin, were being subpoenaed, asked to name names and fired if they refused (Boorstin named his Harvard college roommates). The late James Shenton, a colleague of Hofstadter's at Columbia, told Brown that Hofstadter did not take a stand against firing Communists because"Dick was afraid at the time." It's still a mystery why Hofstadter was never subpoenaed--Brown sheds no light on that crucial question, although others speculate that the FBI may have missed him because he had been a Party member for all of four months.

McCarthyism loomed large in the background of Hofstadter's next book, The Age of Reform, published in 1955. There, Hofstadter searched the past for the roots of the" conspiracy theory" and"paranoid tendencies" that he saw in popular anti-Communism. The book won Hofstadter his first Pulitzer and remains, in Alan Brinkley's words,"the most influential book ever published on the history of twentieth-century America." The book's most enduring contribution, Sean Wilentz rightly argues, is its re-interpretation of the New Deal, not as part of the nineteenth-century reform tradition in America, as most historians saw it, but rather as an"outrageous departure" from it. The old reformers ended up with prohibition as their great achievement; the New Deal, by contrast, focused not on moral campaigns against evil but on pragmatic and practical aims. It eschewed ideology and focused on results--and the results included the welfare state, the Wagner Act for labor and Keynsian policy for the budget. It's still a bracing interpretation.

Hofstadter's argument that the historical roots of McCarthyism lay in the Populist tradition, on the other hand, is simply wrong. He argued that the Populist movement of the 1890s was deeply irrational and essentially proto-fascist. The Populists saw the principal source of injustice and economic suffering in rural America in what they called"the money power." In Hofstadter's analysis, this was evidence of irrational paranoia, of"psychic disturbances." Moreover, Hofstadter argued that these denunciations of"the money power" were deeply anti-Semitic. Alas, his evidence of Populist anti-Semitism was embarrassingly thin: a handful of lurid quotes from a few Populist leaders about the"House of Rothschild" and"Shylock," and an argument that Henry Ford's anti-Semitism came from his background as"a Michigan farm boy who had been liberally exposed to Populist notions."

The problem with this analysis, aside from the paucity of evidence, was that anti-Semitic rhetoric was hardly a monopoly of rural Midwestern Protestants in post-Civil War America. The Protestant elites in East Coast cities were probably more anti-Semitic, and Irish Catholic immigrants in Eastern cities had no love for Jews either. The larger problem stemmed from Hofstadter's theoretical framework. Today Hofstadter is regarded primarily as a great writer with a powerful personal vision. But he was engaged with the most advanced social science theory of his day, and he pioneered the application of theory to history--the move that many of his fans today consider the downfall of the profession. The Age of Reform was framed around the theory of"status politics," which came from an essay by German sociologist Max Weber, published in the United States by Hofstadter's Columbia colleague and friend the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills. Hofstadter's"status politics" thesis held that the Populists were driven to irrationality and paranoia by anxiety over their declining status in an America where rural life and its values were being supplanted by an urban industrial society. Populism, in this view, was a form of reactionary resistance to modernity. Here Hofstadter was the Jewish New York intellectual anxiously looking for traces of proto-fascism somewhere in middle America. He saw Joe McCarthy as a potential American Hitler and believed he had found the roots of American fascism among rural Protestants in the Midwest. It was history by analogy--but the analogy didn't work.

None of these problems escaped Hofstadter's critics at the time. In The Nation, William Appleman Williams argued that Hofstadter's conception of status politics defined opposition to the status quo as fundamentally irrational while the irrationalities of liberal capitalism went unexamined. In 1967 Michael Rogin published a powerful book, The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter, showing that the people who voted for McCarthy, by and large, were not former Populists but rather upper-middle-class suburban Republicans. And it was not just leftists like Williams and Rogin who questioned Hofstadter's"status politics" thesis. One of C. Vann Woodward's greatest essays,"The Populist Heritage and the Intellectual," insisted that the Populist program of the 1890s was far from irrational, that the Populists were not proto-McCarthyites, that many McCarthy supporters came from" college-bred, established-wealth, old family" sources. But if Hofstadter's argument was challenged effectively at the time, his anxiety about an American fascism stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the 1963 book that won Hofstadter his second Pulitzer Prize, was another attempt to identify the historical origins of what Hofstadter saw as the key threat to liberalism in his own time. The book enjoyed a revival in the Age of Reagan, and is cited today at a rate that seems to be increasing exponentially. But the book seems mistaken about the period in which it was published. Anti-intellectualism was hardly a major problem in the United States in 1964. American intellectuals in the early '60s had never had it so good: Universities were growing as never before, Congress provided lavish funding for elite institutions and professors like Hofstadter were highly paid and won big book contracts. Popular magazines followed the hot debates among intellectuals--Daniel Bell on the"end of ideology," David Riesman on"the lonely crowd," C. Wright Mills on"the power elite," Irving Howe on"the age of conformity," C. Vann Woodward on"the strange career of Jim Crow," Michael Harrington on"the other America." As Russell Jacoby argued in The Last Intellectuals, the 1950s were the golden age for liberal thinkers like Hofstadter. Yet something about that era was clearly troubling him.

In the book's first chapter,"Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time," Hofstadter explained what was on his mind: the defeat of Adlai Stevenson twelve years earlier, in 1952. Hofstadter had been a passionate supporter of Stevenson, whom he described in the book as"a politician of uncommon mind." Eisenhower's victory was an"apocalypse for intellectuals"--a typically striking phrase, but wildly off-base. Stevenson was intelligent and articulate, but he was no intellectual. He wasn't even especially liberal: He backed away from Truman's call for national healthcare; he supported the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act; and he was no friend of black people, choosing as his 1952 running mate Alabama Senator John Sparkman, a militant segregationist. (Hofstadter should have noticed, because he supported the civil rights movement and joined the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, as Sean Wilentz recently pointed out.) When it came to Stevenson, Hofstadter's vaunted skepticism and irony evaporated.

Anti-Intellectualism was another of Hofstadter's anxious searches for the roots of American fascism, finding it this time in the evangelical Protestants of the nineteenth century and then in the fundamentalists of the 1920s. Rereading it today, that search seems misguided: McCarthyism was not essentially a movement against intellectuals. True, there were loyalty oaths for professors and purges of faculty leftists, but the anti-Communists devoted much more energy to purging Hollywood radicals and the leftist union activists--a crucial base for New Deal politics. Yes, McCarthy targeted Harvard, but he spent more time attacking the State Department and then, notoriously, the Army. And Hofstadter's conclusion that the McCarthyite anti-intellectualism of the 1950s had its origins in the evangelical Protestantism of the nineteenth century was fundamentally mistaken. Hofstadter's friend Woodward, after reading the book, wrote to him privately,"Dick, you just can't do this."

Four years later, however, some readers of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life saw the book in a new light, against the backdrop of the 1968 student uprising at Hofstadter's Columbia. There, antiwar radicals occupied university buildings and denounced"university complicity in the war." Liberal intellectuals were horrified by the spectacle of students challenging the university, and they went so far as to liken the demonstrators to Brownshirts. They were decidedly less alarmed by Columbia's repressive response. The administration brought 1,000 cops on campus to clear the buildings; 712 students were arrested, 148 injured and nearly 400 filed police brutality complaints. Nothing like that had ever happened on an American campus, although much worse was to come at Kent State and other schools. It's not surprising that Hofstadter agreed to speak at the official Columbia commencement later that spring. Nevertheless, it's sad to picture him rising to give his speech, while forty uniformed policemen stood guard and 300 students walked out in protest to join 2,000 other people at an antiwar counter-commencement nearby.

In other ways, however, Hofstadter's response to the student uprising at Columbia in 1968 set him apart from the liberal critics who regarded the student movement as dangerously anti-intellectual. While his friends in Morningside Heights carried on about the students and saw themselves manning the barricades against the new barbarians, Hofstadter opened the door and invited his students in to talk with him about their goals and strategies. Eric Foner, one of those students, recalled that"his graduate students, many of whom were actively involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements, were having as much influence on his evolving interests and outlook as he was on theirs." Indeed, the year after Columbia '68, Hofstadter was rethinking his earlier work. He privately conceded that his critics had been right about The Age of Reform; in a letter he declared that the book's status thesis was (in Brown's paraphrase)"flawed and unusable" and that"nativism and anti-Semitism permeated American society in the 1890s." In another letter written the same year, he declared that his effort in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life to explain the present had (in Brown's paraphrase)" clearly missed the mark." Here was another surprising and unusual quality: a willingness to reassess his work and find its flaws.

The most remarkable of his relationships with students after the '68 events was with his research assistant, Michael Wallace (who went on to win the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Gotham, a history of New York City). In the spring of 1968, in the midst of the demonstrations, Wallace, a PhD candidate, had unlocked the door to Fayerweather Hall, the history building, so that his fellow student radicals could occupy it. A few months later, Hofstadter invited him to collaborate on a documentary history on American violence.

Thus the intellectual fruit of the trauma of '68 for Hofstadter was not a history of student radicals as Hitler Youth but rather a partnership with one of those radical students that produced a powerful exposé of American racial and class violence. In Foner's words, Hofstadter and Wallace's American Violence: A Documentary History"utterly contradicted the consensus vision of a nation placidly evolving without serious disagreements." This intellectual turn is the most surprising of all in the Hofstadter story. American Violence was the last book Hofstadter published before he died in 1970. He was only 54. (An unfinished work, America at 1750, was published posthumously in 1971.)

Michael Kazin recently warned against viewing Hofstadter as"an elegant ruin from a benighted age." Brown agrees, arguing that we need Hofstadter to understand the tormented politics of our time. In this view, Hofstadter may have been wrong about yesterday's Populists, but he was right about today's Republicans. The rise of George Bush is said to mark the return of status politics, because Republican majorities depend on the Evangelical Protestant"values voters" of the Midwest and South--former Populist areas! Facing economic decline, they blame their problems on the"liberal elite" and vote for prayer in schools and guns everywhere else.

That seems like a thin lesson to draw from a thick body of work. Hofstadter is worth reading in 2006 not so much because of his specific arguments but rather because of the spirit of his writing, which brings together anxieties about the dark side of American politics with a skeptical attitude toward conventional wisdom. That spirit, along with the lucidity and beauty of his prose, gives his work an enduring vitality.

Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.