Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography

Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography

Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography

Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography


Richard Hofstadter (1916-70) was America's most distinguished historian of the twentieth century. The author of several groundbreaking books, including The American Political Tradition, he was a vigorous champion of the liberal politics that emerged from the New Deal. During his nearly thirty-year career, Hofstadter fought public campaigns against liberalism's most dynamic opponents, from McCarthy in the 1950s to Barry Goldwater and the Sun Belt conservatives in the 1960s. His opposition to the extreme politics of postwar America marked him as one of the nation's most important and prolific public intellectuals.

In this masterly biography, David Brown explores Hofstadter's life within the context of the rise and fall of American liberalism. A fierce advocate of academic freedom, racial justice, and political pluralism, Hofstadter charted in his works the changing nature of American society from a provincial Protestant foundation to one based on the values of an urban and multiethnic nation. According to Brown, Hofstadter presciently saw in rural America's hostility to this cosmopolitanism signs of an anti-intellectualism that he believed was dangerously endemic in a mass democracy.

By the end of a life cut short by leukemia, Hofstadter had won two Pulitzer Prizes and his books had attracted international attention. Yet the Vietnam years, as Brown shows, culminated in a conservative reaction to his work that is still with us. Whether one agrees with Hofstadter's critics or his fans, the importance of this seminal thinker cannot be denied.

"In this illuminating biography... [Brown] freshens the worn-out chronicle of postwar Upper West Side intelligentsia by re-telling it from Hofstadter's playful, eternally skeptical, oddly uninflammatory point of view.... Above all, Brown helps readers assess Hofstadter as a member of a generation of American historians every bit as important as (and in some respects more so than) the well-known Progressive generation of Charles Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Vernon Parrington."- Sean Wilentz, New Republic


In a liberal society the historian is free to try to dissociate
myths from reality, but that same impulse to myth-making
that moves his fellow man is also at work in him.


There is a certain mystique to Richard Hofstadter. For nearly thirty years, the legend goes, he wrote the best books for the best publisher, won the best prizes, and taught in the best city, at the best school, at the best time. Among historians, The American Political Tradition, House of Knopf, Pulitzer, New York, Columbia University, and postwar America evoke a hazy attachment to a lost world of scholarly giants confident in the curative powers of the enlightened mind. This was a world raised in the collective memory of the Depression thirties, tormented by the anti-intellectualism of the McCarthy fifties, and rejected in the student wars of the radical sixties. Along the way, American society changed and historical writing changed, too. The older generation's preference for exploring the politics and ideas of elite personalities yielded before a broad canopy of studies focusing on race, class, and gender that revolutionized the academy's presentation of the past. Now, as the last great historians of the postwar period leave the scene, it seems particularly useful to candidly assess the greatest among them. Richard Hofstadter's career as a professional historian paralleled the heyday of twentiethcentury liberalism (1933–68). Tracing his life reveals a complex tapestry of internal and external motivations that merged to produce a uniquely insightful mind, alert to the promise and perils of American democracy.

As the academy moved to the left, the nation's political culture lurched to the right, leaving liberals clinging to an ever-shrinking center. That Hofstadter, a symbol of the postwar consensus, is still commonly quoted in the pages of the nation's most popular general interest and political . . .

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