Hofstadter circa 1970
|Died||October 24, 1970 (aged 54)|
|Awards||Pulitzer Prize (1956; 1964)|
|Doctoral advisor||Merle Curti|
|Main interests||History of American political culture|
Hofstadter was the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. Rejecting his earlier communist approach to history, in the 1950s he came closer to the concept of "consensus history", and was epitomized by some of his admirers as the "iconic historian of postwar liberal consensus." Others see in his work an early critique of the one-dimensional society, as Hofstadter was equally critical of socialist and capitalist models of society, and bemoaned the "consensus" within the society as "bounded by the horizons of property and entrepreneurship", criticizing the "hegemonic liberal capitalist culture running throughout the course of American history".
His most widely read works are Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (1944); The American Political Tradition (1948); The Age of Reform (1955); Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), and the essays collected in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964).
He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, first in 1956 for The Age of Reform, an analysis of the populism movement in the 1890s and the progressive movement of the early 20th century; and then in 1964 for the cultural history Anti-intellectualism in American Life.
Despite opposition from both families, he married Felice Swados in 1936 after he and Felice spent several summers at Hunter Colony, New York, run by Margaret Lefranc, their close friend for years; they had one child, Dan.
Hofstadter was raised as an Episcopalian but later identified more with his Jewish roots. Antisemitism may have cost him fellowships at Columbia and attractive professorships. The Buffalo Jewish Hall of Fame lists him as one of the "Jewish Buffalonians who have made a lasting contribution to the world."
In 1936, Hofstadter entered the doctoral program in history at Columbia University where his advisor Merle Curti was demonstrating how to synthesize intellectual, social, and political history based upon secondary sources rather than primary-source archival research.
In 1938, he became a member of the Communist Party, but soon became disillusioned by the Stalinist party discipline and show trials. After withdrawing membership in August 1939 following the Hitler-Stalin Pact, he retained a critical left-wing perspective that was still obvious in American Political Tradition in 1948.
Hofstadter earned his PhD in 1942. In 1944, he published his dissertation Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915. It was a commercially successful (200,000 copies) critique of late nineteenth-century American capitalism and its ruthless "dog-eat-dog" economic competition and Social Darwinian self-justification. Conservative critics, such as Irwin G. Wylie and Robert C. Bannister, disagreed with his interpretation. The sharpest criticism of Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 focused on Hofstadter's weakness as a research scholar: he did little or no research into manuscripts, newspapers, archival, or unpublished sources. Instead, he primarily relied upon secondary sources augmented by his lively style and wide-ranging interdisciplinary readings, thus producing very well-written arguments based upon scattered evidence he found by reading other historians.
From 1942 to 1946 Hofstadter taught history at the University of Maryland, where he became a close friend of the popular sociologist C. Wright Mills and read extensively in the fields of sociology and psychology, absorbing ideas of Max Weber, Karl Mannheim, Sigmund Freud, and the Frankfurt School. His later books frequently refer to behavioral concepts such as "status anxiety".
In 1946 Hofstadter joined the Columbia University faculty and in 1959 succeeded Allan Nevins as the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History, where he played a major role in directing Ph.D. dissertations in the field. According to David Brown, his biographer, after 1945 Hofstadter philosophically "broke" with Charles A. Beard and moved to the right, becoming leader of the "consensus historians," a term that Hofstadter disapproved of, but it was widely applied to his apparent rejection of the Beardian idea that the fundamental conflict running throughout American history that pitted economic classes against each other was the sole basis for understanding history.
In a dissenting view, Christopher Lasch wrote that unlike the "consensus historians" of the 1950s, Hofstadter saw the consensus of classes on behalf of business interests not as a strength but "as a form of intellectual bankruptcy and as a reflection, moreover, not of a healthy sense of the practical but of the domination of American political thought by popular mythologies".
As early as his American Political Tradition (1948), but still viewing politics from a critical left-wing perspective, Hofstadter rejected black-and-white polarization between pro-business and anti-business politicians. Making explicit reference to Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Bryan, Wilson, and Hoover, Hofstadter made a statement on the consensus in the American political tradition, which is sometimes seen as "ironic":
The fierceness of the political struggles has often been misleading: for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the value of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man.
Hofstadter later complained that this remark in a hastily written preface requested by the editor had been the reason for "lumping him" unfairly into the category of "consensus historians" like Boorstin, who celebrated this kind of ideological consensus as an achievement, whereas Hofstadter deplored it. Hofstadter himself expressed his dislike of the term consensus historian several times. He also criticized Boorstin for overusing the consensus and ignoring the essential conflicts in history.
In the former draft preface he had written:
American politics has always been an arena in which conflicts of interests have been fought out, compromised, adjusted. Once these interests were sectional; now they tend more clearly to follow class lines; but from the beginning American political parties, instead of representing single sections or classes clearly and forcefully, have been intersectional and interclass parties, embracing a jumble of interests which often have reasons for contesting among themselves.
Hofstadter rejected Beard's interpretation of history as a succession of exclusively economically motivated group conflicts and financial interests of politicians. He thought that most of the periods of US history, except the Civil War, could be fully understood only by taking into account an implicit consensus, shared by all groups across the conflict lines. He criticized the generation of Beard and Vernon Louis Parrington because they had
...put such an excessive emphasis on conflict, that an antidote was needed... It seems to me to be clear that a political society cannot hang together, at all, unless there is some kind of consensus running through it, and yet that no society has such a total consensus as to be devoid of significant conflict. It is all a matter of proportion and emphasis, which is terribly important in history. Of course, obviously, we have had one total failure of consensus, which led to the Civil War. One could use that as the extreme case in which consensus breaks down.
In 1948 he published The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, incisive interpretive studies of 12 major American political leaders from the 18th-20th centuries. Besides critical success, the book sold nearly a million copies at university campuses, where it was used as a history textbook; critics found it "skeptical, fresh, revisionary, occasionally ironical, without being harsh or merely destructive." Each chapter title illustrated a paradox: Thomas Jefferson is "The Aristocrat as Democrat"; John C. Calhoun is the "Marx of the Master Class"; and Franklin Roosevelt is "The Patrician as Opportunist." Hofstadter's writing style was so powerful and engrossing that professors kept assigning the book long after its main points had been revised or rejected by scholars.
As a historian, Hofstadter's ground-breaking work came in using social psychology concepts to explain political history.[a] He explored subconscious motives such as social status anxiety, anti-intellectualism, irrational fear, and paranoia--as they propel political discourse and action in politics. Historian Lloyd Gardner says, "in later essays Hofstadter specifically ruled out the possibility of a Leninist interpretation of American imperialism."
The Age of Reform (1955) analyzes the yeoman ideal in America's sentimental attachment to agrarianism and the moral superiority of the farm over the city. Hofstadter--himself very much a big-city person--noted the agrarian ethos was "a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins, however, to call it a myth does not imply falsity, because it effectively embodies the rural values of the American people, profoundly influencing their perception of the correct values, hence their political behavior." In this matter, the stress is upon the importance of Jefferson's writings, and of his followers, in the development of agrarianism in the US, as establishing the agrarian myth, and its importance, in American life and politics--despite the rural and urban industrialization that rendered the myth moot.[page needed]
Anti-intellectualism in American Life, 1963 and The Paranoid Style in American Politics, 1965 describe the provincialism in American society, warning it contains much anti-intellectual fear of the cosmopolitan city, presented as wicked by the xenophobic and anti-Semitic Populists of the 1890s. They trace the direct political and ideological lineage between the Populists and anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism, the political paranoia manifest in his contemporary time. His dissertation director Merle Curti noted about Hofstadter that "His position is as biased, by his urban background... as the work of older historians was biased by their rural background and traditional agrarian sympathies."
The Idea of a Party System, 1969 describes the origins of the First Party System as reflecting fears that the [other] political party threatened to destroy the republic. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington, 1968 systematically analyzes and criticizes the intellectual foundations and historical validity of Charles Beard's historiography; the book "signalled a growing support for neoconservatism" by Hofstadter. While not publishing his harshest thoughts, Hofstadter said privately that Turner no longer was a useful guide to history, because he was too obsessed with the frontier and his ideas too often had "a pound of false-hood for every few ounces of truth."[b]
Howe and Finn argue that rhetorically, Hofstadter's cultural interpretation drew upon concepts drawn from literary criticism, anthropology, and social psychology. He used them over and over: first: "irony," "paradox," "anomaly," "curiously." Second: "myth," "tradition," "legend," "folklore." Third: "projection," "unconsciously," "identity," "anxiety," and "paranoid." He artfully employed their explicit scholarly meanings and their informal prejudicial connotations. His goal, they argue, was "destroying certain cherished American traditions and myths derived from his conviction that they provided no trustworthy guide for action in the present." Thus Hofstadter argued, "The application of depth psychology to politics, chancy though it is, has at least made us acutely aware that politics can be a projective arena for feelings and impulses that are only marginally related to the manifest issues."
C. Vann Woodward stated that Hofstadter seemed "to have a solid understanding, if not a private affection" for "the odd, the warped, the 'zanies' and the crazies of American life - left, right and middle."
Hofstadter, influenced by his wife, was a member of the Young Communist League in college, and in April 1938 he joined the Communist Party of the USA; he quit in 1939. Hofstadter had been reluctant to join, knowing the orthodoxy it imposed on intellectuals, telling them what to believe and what to write. He was disillusioned by the spectacle of the Moscow Show Trials, but wrote: "I join without enthusiasm but with a sense of obligation... my fundamental reason for joining is that I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it." He remained anti-capitalist, writing, "I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it," but was similarly disillusioned with Stalinism, finding the Soviet Union "essentially undemocratic" and the Communist Party rigid and doctrinaire. In the 1940s Hofstadter abandoned political causes, feeling that intellectuals were no more likely to "find a comfortable home" under socialism than they were under capitalism.
Biographer Susan Baker writes that Hofstadter "was profoundly influenced by the political Left of the 1930s...The philosophical impact of Marxism was so intense and direct during Hofstadter's formative years that it formed a major part of his identity crisis...The impact of these years created his orientation to the American past, accompanied as it was by marriage, establishment of life-style, and choice of profession."
Geary (2007) concludes that, "To Hofstadter, radicalism always offered more of a critical intellectual stance than a commitment to political activism. Although Hofstadter quickly became disillusioned with the Communist Party, he retained an independent left-wing standpoint well into the 1940s. His first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944), and The American Political Tradition (1948) had a radical point of view."
In the 1940s, Hofstadter cited Charles A. Beard as "the exciting influence on me." Hofstadter specifically responded to Beard's social-conflict model of US history, which emphasized the struggle among competing economic groups (primarily farmers, Southern slavers, Northern industrialists, and workers) and discounted abstract political rhetoric which rarely translated into action. Beard encouraged historians to search for the hidden self-interest and financial goals of the economic belligerents.
By the 1950s and 1960s Hofstadter had a strong reputation in liberal circles. Lawrence Cremin noted that "Hofstadter's central purpose in writing history...was to reformulate American liberalism so that it might stand more honestly and effectively against attacks from both left and right in a world which had accepted the essential insights of Darwin, Marx, and Freud."Alfred Kazin identified his use of parody: "He was a derisive critic and parodist of every American Utopia and its wild prophets, a natural oppositionist to fashion and its satirist, a creature suspended between gloom and fun, between disdain for the expected and mad parody."
Conservative commentator George Will in 2008 called Hofstadter "the iconic public intellectual of liberal condescension," who "dismissed conservatives as victims of character flaws and psychological disorders--a 'paranoid style' of politics rooted in 'status anxiety.' etc. Conservatism rose on a tide of votes cast by people irritated by the liberalism of condescension."
Angered by the radical politics of the 1960s, and especially by the student occupation and temporary closure of Columbia University in 1968, Hofstadter began to criticize student activist methods. His friend David Herbert Donald said, "as a liberal who criticized the liberal tradition from within, he was appalled by the growing radical, even revolutionary, sentiment that he sensed among his colleagues and his students. He could never share their simplistic, moralistic approach." Brick says he regarded them as "simple-minded, moralistic, ruthless, and destructive." Moreover, he was "extremely critical of student tactics, believing that they were based on irrational romantic ideas, rather than sensible plans for achievable change, that they undermined the unique status of the university, as an institutional bastion of free thought, and that they were bound to provoke a political reaction from the right." Coates argues that his career saw a steady move from left to right, and that his 1968 Columbia Commencement Address "represented the completion of his conversion to conservatism."
Despite strongly disagreeing with their political methods, he invited his radical students to discuss goals and strategies with him. He even employed one, Mike Wallace, to collaborate with him on American Violence: A Documentary History (1970); about the book, Hofstadter student Eric Foner said that it "utterly contradicted the consensus vision of a nation placidly evolving without serious disagreements."
Hofstadter planned to write a three-volume history of American society, but at his death he had only completed the first volume, America at 1750: A Social Portrait (1971).
Hofstadter showed more interest in his research than in his teaching. In undergraduate classes, he read aloud each day the draft of his next book. As a senior professor at a leading graduate university, Hofstadter directed more than one hundred finished doctoral dissertations but gave his graduate students only cursory attention; Hofstadter believed that this academic latitude enabled them to find their own models of history. Among them were Herbert Gutman, Eric Foner, Lawrence W. Levine, Linda Kerber, and Paula S. Fass. Some, such as Eric McKitrick and Stanley Elkins, were more conservative than he; hence, Hofstadter had few disciples and founded no school of history writing.
Following Hofstadter's death, Columbia dedicated a locked bookcase of his works in Butler Library to him, but his widow Beatrice--who after his death married the journalist Theodore White--asked that it be removed when the physical conditions of the library deteriorated.
C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought, which sharply criticized.
Richard Hofstadter, one of the leading historians of American affairs, died yesterday of leukemia at Mount Sinai Hospital at the age of 54. He was DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University and twice a Pulitzer Prize-winner. He lived at 1125 Park Avenue.