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.
RICHARD HOFSTADTER, 1956
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