Clio's Favorites: Leading Historians of the United States, 1945-2000

By Robert Allen Rutland | Go to book overview
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Richard Hofstadter

Jack Pole

alking away from the Columbia University campus, soon after crossing Broadway you come to Claremont Avenue, where, at No. 25, Richard Hofstadter did most of his work. The internal arrangement of the (rent-supported) apartment was symbolically and literally characteristic of the man and his method; the living room, which looked down onto the avenue, was divided only by a long settee. In front was the general living area; behind, the wide desk and book-lined shelves: the study. This spatial plan was more than symbolic; it was how Richard Hofstadter lived. Not until he reached his early fifties did he move to the East Side and acquire the symbolic luxury of a separate study. The move would be a sign of deeper changes.

Through his most productive period, the historian's work shared its space with that of his daily life. Hofstadter loved company and joined in the after-dinner social life, indulging in irreverent mimicry, throwing out aphorisms in which penetrating observation was often wrapped in verbal wit, always listening attentively to others, conversing joyously with Gustin (for Augustin, and pronounced as in French), his much loved little terrier. His conversation, usually animated, often hilarious, but seldom merely frivolous, was, for an academic, singularly devoid of small talk; there was always much to say and hear. But late at night, when all the others had gone to bed, he passed behind the settee, sat down again at his desk, and began (or resumed) his long day's work. He was frequently there at three or four in the morning, and asleep while others began breakfast. Of course this was not his only working space. The American Political Tradition was begun at the University of Maryland, at the bedside of his first wife, who was dying of cancer; later, whenever they went on holiday to their retreat in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, or even to the Caribbean, until the end of his own foreshortened life, he always took work with him.

-68-

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