Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography

By Marotta, Gary | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2008 | Go to article overview
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Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography


Marotta, Gary, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006) 291 pp., bibliography, list of students, index, cloth, $27.50, ISBN 0-226-07640-7.

In March 1965, a delegation of distinguished historians, organized by University of Chicago scholars Walter Johnson and John Hope Franklin, gathered in Atlanta to join Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma to march to Montgomery. Richard Hofstadter was among them. Weeks earlier, Alabama state troopers, wheeling nightsticks and discharging tear gas, had busted up a voting rights march to Selma. John Hope Franklin, in his autobiography, recalls "those of us who gathered in Atlanta were taken by SCLC bus to Tuskegee, where we were to be received by Luther Foster, president of Tuskegee Institute. It was on route to Tuskegee that the bus made a lurch around the corner and almost left the road. At that point, Richard Hofstadter stood and pleaded with the bus driver to be more careful: 1If your driving leads to an accident that kills us all, you will set back the liberal interpretation of American history for a century.'" Hofstadter's irony was deeper than he realized. John Lewis, then of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and now of the U.S. Congress, had his head bashed open by a state trooper in Selma. Lewis was carrying a knapsack, which contained a copy of Richard Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition.

Richard Hofstadter, a two time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, was the seminal historian of his generation and the most penetrating interpreter of American political culture since deTocqueville. More than three decades after his death from leukemia in 1973 at the age of fifty-four, intellectuals and pundits freely borrow the concepts of social psychology he applied to analyze American history-paranoid style, status anxiety, status revolt, psychic crisis, antiintellectualism, agrarian myth. He was the vanguard scholar in propounding, along with Louis Hartz, Eric Goldman, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Daniel Boorstin, the "consensus" interpretation of American political history, yet he always remained its critic, arguing from the left of the vital center. He insisted on rejecting sentimentality, nostalgia, and hero worship, on questioning the received pieties and conventions, on exposing bathos. He was a supreme iconoclast, yet he has become mythic himself, the charismatic intellectual, the historian engage', the embodiment of literary elegance and style.

David Brown's masterful and lucid study, Richard Hofstadter, An Intellectual Biography, is organized into three parts, corresponding to the principal periods shaping his life. Part one brings us from his radical roots in Buffalo, New York, into the making of the historian as social scientist, his encounter with the Frankfurt School, 1916-1950. Part two locates Hofstadter's genius during the heyday of twentieth century liberalism, places him into the vehement debates of his profession, and provides a sustained analysis of his major texts, 1950-1965. Part three captures the eclipse of Hofstadter's world as the academy moved to the radical left and the nation's political culture shifted to the reactionary right, 1965-1970. The book is an historiographical tour de force and a probing of the intelligencia of the American academy, notably New York City.

Brown, who is associate professor of history at Elizabethtown College, in New Jersey, has successfully encountered the lion of Morningside Heights, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. Brown describes his book as "an extended conversation with the formal writings of Richard Hofstadter." It's more than that, Brown's interviews with Hofstadter's colleagues and students, his close reading of his writings and those of his critics, including unpublished letters and manuscripts, bring to this book a perspectival balance, a subtle and perceptive interpretation. But there are still significant subjects unresolved: what of the influence of the two extraordinary women in his life, both literary, both from Buffalo, his wives Felice Swados and Beatrice Kevitt?

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