Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography

By David S. Brown | Go to book overview

8
Rebellion from Within

Columbia University had a way of containing within it most
of the problems in American society at large. It was a micro-
cosm. In the spring of'68, we saw a university that had for
twenty years trampled on its neighbors in Harlem, evicted
people from their homes, which was also the largest defense
contracting university. We were against the war, we were
against inequality in society, but we had in our own adminis-
tration an example of what was worst about our society, and
we could confront it by confronting it right at home.

TOM HURWITZ, 2000

Our nation's intellectual history is a story of regional migrations. Surveying the last century, Boston Pragmatists William James, Charles S. Peirce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., shaped American thought until the emergence, about 1910, of Greenwich Village Modernists Randolph Bourne, Emma Goldman, and John Reed. From there, ideas moved uptown, and at midcentury New York intellectuals Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell, and Irving Howe wrote the essays and edited the journals that steered sophisticated public opinion for a generation. Among America's great institutions of learning, Columbia University is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the cultural and educational amenities offered by New York City—and this has made it a particularly attractive home for intellectuals. Some stay longer than others. During Hofstadter's many years at Morningside Heights, several of the institution's most talented American historians, including Merle Curti, Henry Steele Commager, Allan Nevins, David Herbert Donald, and Dumas Malone, left New York for other positions. But Hofstadter thrived amid the stability of a single residence, university, and publisher; the short ten-minute walk from his Claremont Avenue apartment to his office at 704 Hamilton Hall offered silent though suggestive commentary on his devotion to the metropolitan idea. “He stayed here,” Fritz Stern remembered. “He liked Columbia's unpretentious, even awkward style which paid so little to amenities and externals and, at its best, so much to matters of intellect.”1 Hofstadter's loyalty to the institution ran deep, and for

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