In Search of Richard
I should say that I think of him all the time. He would have
enjoyed Watergate, Reagan's 'Morning in America,' and
other dramas that called for a Mencken. But where is he
now that we need him.
PETER GAY, 2003
I was introduced to the work of Richard Hofstadter in 1988, producing a brief review of The Idea of a Party System for a summer history course. I was particularly impressed with Hofstadter's deft handling of Martin Van Buren—a mysterious figure to me brought to life in swift and illuminating strokes: “Van Buren typified the spirit of the amiable county courthouse lawyer translated to politics.” And, like many of Hofstadter's readers, I was easily charmed by his lucid, telling sentences. From there I discovered The American Political Tradition and still vividly recall the pleasure of reading it during my breaks at the Catholic hospital where I washed dishes. It appealed as much to my sense of humor as to my sense of the past—insightfully irreverent, by turns comical and persuasive; a young man's book perhaps best read in youth.
Some years later, a graduate professor of mine remarked that while stationed in Korea during the war, he enthusiastically read all three volumes of Vernon Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought. He was convinced, he smiled, that its sharply drawn portraits of important personalities offered the last word on American history. What else did one need to read? The American Political Tradition had the same impact on me (I now smile). Every November the Planned Parenthood affliate of Dayton, Ohio, held a giant book sale at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. And each year I picked up a copy or two of The American Political Tradition to give to friends. Tangible proof, I suppose, of professional aspirations.
In graduate school I read all of Hofstadter's books, my interest in his-