Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography

By David S. Brown | Go to book overview
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1
Radical Roots

We had been formed by the Great Depression, but Hofstad-
ter was a secret conservative in a radical period. The times
caught up with him.

ALFRED KAZIN, 1978

The uprooting of global populations is by its nature a violent, unsettling act. During the half-century industrial renaissance running from the peace of Appomattox to the First World War, more than twenty million immigrants arrived on American shores in a remarkable exchange of human talents and customs. Their collective contributions in art, politics, education, law, and criticism broke cleanly from long-established cultural preferences that were rooted in the Wasp past. While the pioneer theme evoked by the newcomers appealed to native traditions as old as the country itself, the eclectic geographic and ethnic diversity of the current crossings—more eastern than northern European, more Catholic and Jewish than Protestant—differed dramatically from previous migrations. This complex, vibrant, and vulnerable population challenged the authority of the established caste, inciting a variety of tensions not to be easily negotiated nor reconciled. Among the more extreme responses, literary expatriates Henry Adams, Ezra Pound, Henry James, and T. S. Eliot rejected the reconfigured American scene and sought solace in the cultural heritage of the Old World. “My country in 1900,” Adams sighed, “is something totally different from my own country of 1860. I am wholly a stranger in it.”1

Born in the immigrant city of Buffalo in 1916 to a Jewish Polish father and his German Lutheran wife, Richard Hofstadter grew up in a nation on the threshold of momentous and irreversible change. A resplendent rural, Protestant tradition still collected upon the sympathies of oldstock Americans. But its days were numbered. The twentieth century

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