The pundits' favorite historian.

The history behind current events.
June 7 2006 1:47 PM

Richard Hofstadter

The pundits' favorite historian.

"The paranoid style in American politics." … "Status anxiety." … "Anti-intellectualism in American life." … "Third parties are like bees: Once they have stung they die." —Richard Hofstadter.

Richard Hofstadter's name is cited a lot in our political culture—a lot, at least, for an academic historian who died in 1970. But sometimes it seems as if his influence has been distilled to a few catchphrases. This is unfair: Hofstadter was no glib pundit. "Though never a 'popularizer,' he could, as Merle Curti once said, write 'popular history in the best sense,' " notes David S. Brown in his perceptive and lucid new book, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. While Hofstadter wrote elegantly and served up a mean bon mot—it was he who first spoke about the New York Review of Each Other's Books—he didn't make a point of coining aphorisms.

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Hofstadter's sound bites survive because they encapsulate important ideas he originated. Commentators may simplify or mangle those ideas; there should probably be a moratorium on invoking "the paranoid style." But if catchy turns of phrase were the sum of Hofstadter's legacy, he wouldn't garner the attention he still does—including, now, Brown's book, the first full-length biography of this controversial but much-loved historian. "Controversial but much-loved": It's a testament to Hofstadter's influence in the academy as well as outside that few historians have endured such campaigns to debunk their work. In contrast to his popular image as a fount of scintillating insights, scholars today cite him warily. Graduate students learn that his major ideas are just plain wrong. For example: In The Age of Reform(1955) Hofstadter took a dim view of the Populists—the struggling Western and Southern farmers of the Gilded Age who chafed under the political power of Eastern corporations and banks—considering them prone to anti-Semitism and conspiratorial thinking. But a later generation of scholars reinterpreted the Populists as righteous grass-roots crusaders for economic justice.

Similarly, with The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965) and other works, Hofstadter initially won praise for replacing crude rationalistic accounts of political motivation with subtle psychological understandings, especially regarding the hard right of Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater. But today academic fashion holds, as one historian has written, that Hofstadter's "excessively psychological interpretation distorted our understanding of American conservatism." Even the historian's 1948 gem, The American Political Tradition, has long drawn scorn for embodying the now-discredited "consensus history"—the notion that broad agreement on basic principles, more than ideological conflict, defined the American past.

Nonetheless, Hofstadter's heirs have thrown at him little of the vitriol that they've poured on other giants of his age (notably Arthur Schlesinger Jr.). This charity toward Hofstadter surely owes something to his personality. Known for his sense of humor, he was also the rare professor of his era who, as one of his female advisees said, "took women graduate students as seriously as he did male graduate students." Beyond his personal traits, though, Hofstadter enjoys affection because, for all his strong opinions and forceful arguments, he wasn't doctrinaire in the way that generates intellectual enemies. Disabused of his radical leanings as a young man—his flirtation with the Communist Party lasted all of four months—Hofstadter became a lifelong liberal. Most of his scholarly work not only defends liberal values—tolerance, civil liberties, academic freedom—against the onslaughts of the left and right but exhibits a liberal sensibility as well.

Political beliefs don't always translate into personal behavior or an intellectual style—a philosopher I know says that in academic politics, ethicists are usually the biggest scoundrels. ButHofstadter's liberalism seems to have correlated with an open-mindedness that suffuses his work. "Dick became for me a model of what the scholar-intellectual ought to be," said no less than Irving Howe, "and I tried to learn from him. ... Modest and humane, but above all without the need to impose himself that seems a special curse of intellectuals, Dick Hofstadter set an example that might yield a moral education."

Hofstadter's roaming, experimental style is often associated with the so-called New York Intellectuals—and more precisely with the American Jews who came of age in the world of letters and scholarship after World War II. Half-Jewish, half-Lutheran, Hofstadter belonged to what sociologist Daniel Bell called "the Upper West Side Kibbutz"—a circle that included such Columbia-based (and predominantly Jewish) thinkers as Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, C. Wright Mills, and Lionel Trilling. It wasn't just the intellectual voracity and playfulness of these peers (or their ethnicity) that Hofstadter shared; he also mined their research in psychology and sociology for new ways to address problems of historical motive, values, and ideology. These were problems that an earlier generation of materialist-minded scholars—the "Progressive Historians" to whom Hofstadter devoted a book in 1968—had failed to adequately theorize or explain. 

Traditional historians scoffed at Hofstadter's approach. They said he placed too much weight on ideas and intellect and not enough on archival research and empirical evidence. "This is not science," sniffed a now little-remembered colleague, David Shannon, "this is an example of what an intelligent person can do sitting in an arm chair."Such caustic criticism, however, didn't bother Hofstadter much, according to Brown; he shrugged off his detractors as "archive rats." Perhaps he knew that this disdain for the "New York style" could be a veiled form of anti-Semitism. Of course, such anti-Jewish feelings were usually expressed discreetly, as when one University of California historian asked another to size up Hofstadter at a conference: "I am not yet quite sure that he is the man we want. His point of view strikes me as rather typical of the New York Jewish intelligentsia, although I do not even know that he is a Jew." Occasionally, however, the profession's anti-Semitism was expressed more publicly (if still obliquely), as in 1962, when Brown University's Carl Bridenbaugh, addressing the entire American Historical Association, denigrated historians from "lower middle-class or foreign origins," whose emotions, he said "get in the way of historical reconstructions."

Hofstadter himself was quick—too quick—to acknowledge the ways that inherited values of ethnicity or region shape people's thinking. In fact, his analyses were weakest when he seemed to assign causal power to, for instance, "the Anglo-Saxon mind." The same can be said of Brown. The conflicts in the historical profession between Easterners (often Jews), with their emphasis on cerebral creativity, and Midwesterners (often WASPs), who vaunted rugged hard work, were real enough—but only in a general way. In Brown's telling, a figure like William Appleman Williams is pigeonholed as "an Iowa native weaned on the high progressivism indicative of his graduate training at the University of Wisconsin" when he assails Hofstadter in The Nation for preferring social scientific theories to archival research. C. Vann Woodward's rejection of Hofstadter's "Eastern" view of Populists as proto-McCarthyites is likewise linked to his Southern origins. Hofstadter, for his part, occasionally seems little more than—what to call it?—a stereotypical New York Jew.

The problem with this approach—as Brown notes in his introduction but then seems to forget—is that Hofstadter was only half-Jewish, and that, as he said in an interview, he "spent a lot of years acquiring a Jewish identity." (The ways, if any, in which his Lutheran mother's heritage shaped his mind go unexplored.) Nor was Hofstadter reflexively hostile to what is called, in a loaded term that privileges the supposed authentic Americanness of the Midwest, the heartland; he once argued that New York academics would benefit from sabbaticals in Kansas, North Dakota, or Utah.

More than his status as a Jew or a New Yorker, Hofstadter's intellectual identity and style were rooted in his liberalism. Plenty of other New York Jewish thinkers, after all, chose radicalism or neoconservatism in these years as their abiding creeds. Hofstadter's Jewishness no doubt contributed, in a post-Holocaust world, to his fear of the McCarthyite "masses" and later of the New Left's violence against the university. But his deep commitment to openness of thought and argument, to the life of the mind, was surely the more important factor.

This commitment comes through in a nifty list that Brown has compiled of all Hofstadter's doctoral advisees. The diversity is remarkable. His students range from Eric Foner, now America's leading historian of Reconstruction, to the intellectual and women's historian Linda Kerber, the current president of the American Historical Association; from radical-turned-conservative Christopher Lasch to presidential biographer Robert Dallek; from Lawrence W. Levine, the cultural historian whose work blew apart distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow, to Michael Wallace, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gotham: A History of New York City.

Like the late John Kenneth Galbraith, Hofstadter has been faulted for leaving behind no coherent "school" of history, no set of disciples. But for a man who once said to Foner, "I'm not a teacher, I'm a writer," to have tutored such a splendid variety of historians shows that he imbued his students with something more precious than the ability to write history his way. He taught them to write history their way.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.