Richard Hofstadter

American historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) won two Pulitzer prizes in recognition of his leading role in reinterpreting United States history during the post-World War II period.

Richard Hofstadter was born on August 6, 1916, in Buffalo, New York. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, his mother an American-born Protestant who died when her son was ten. Hofstadter received his undergraduate education at the University of Buffalo, graduating in 1937. He went on to do graduate work in history at Columbia University, completing his M.A. and Ph.D. in 1938 and 1942 respectively. After teaching for four years at the University of Maryland, he joined Columbia University's History Department in 1946 and remained on that faculty until his death in 1970. He was married twice, first (1936) to Felice Swados, with whom he had a son, and then (1947) to Beatrice Kevitt, with whom he had a daughter.

Hofstadter was a highly productive author of works on American political culture, a subject that allowed him to explore in depth both political history and the history of ideas. His first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (1944), was an analysis of how American thinkers attempted to adapt Darwinist ideas to their purposes between the Civil War and World War I. In his second book, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948), his focus shifted from intellectual to political history. The volume, which was made up of a series of essays on American political figures from the Founding Fathers to Franklin D. Roosevelt, sold very well and established his reputation as an able stylist and a skillful interpretative historian.

Hofstadter's iconoclastic bent was a trait for which he came to be widely admired. This was evident in the challenge he laid down to the prevailing view, one inherited from the so-called progressive historians of the early 20th century, that American party battles were based on a clear-cut, dualistic struggle between the "interests" and "the people"—that is, between a conservative elite's selfishness and the democratic aspirations of the general public. By contrast, Hofstadter argued that ideological cleavages had seldom been so sharply defined as the progressive thesis implied and that opportunism and expediency rather than idealism had generally motivated American political leaders of all stripes.

Between 1955 and 1965 Hofstadter's standing in scholarly circles continued to grow as he produced three significant books—The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (1955), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964), and The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (1965)—and won two Pulitzer prizes. The most important of his works from this period was The Age of Reform, a study of the liberal reform tradition from the 1890s to the 1930s. Most previous histories of the Populist and progressive reformers had been written from the reformers' perspective. Hofstadter was careful to acknowledge the positive achievements of the older liberals, but he went on to argue that a close examination of these supposedly idealistic reformers revealed a variety of traits, including tendencies toward nativism and jingoism, that were far from enlightened.

Hofstadter's emphasis on conservative and even retrogressive elements in the liberal reform tradition created something of a sensation in historical circles. Some critics, led by John Higham, suggested that Hofstadter and several other important postwar historians were homogenizing American history, downplaying the conflicts that had separated Americans and substituting a portrait that stressed a bland, middle-class consensus in national affairs. Other scholars, notably Norman Pollack, charged that Hofstadter's exposure of liberalism's supposed deficiencies served to discredit the progressive reform tradition and thus gave aid and comfort to the conservative causes and leaders that were flourishing in the 1950s. Although Hofstadter was certainly interested in describing what Americans had in common, he was not an unthinking defender of an American consensus on bourgeois values. Nor did he think of himself as a conservative simply because he criticized liberalism. On the contrary, he argued that in spelling out liberalism's flaws he hoped to help American progressives put their house in order so that they could preserve the best of their tradition, which he said was his as well, against the attacks being made on it from every direction in the post-World War II period.

Hofstadter's worries about the illiberal mood that prevailed in postwar America were even more apparent in the two major books that followed The Age of Reform. In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life he presented a lengthy and at times tedious diatribe against the hostility he felt American popular culture had displayed toward urbane, cosmopolitan, and intellectually unorthodox views from colonial times into the 20th century. In The Paranoid Style in American Politics he examined the illiberality of a variety of American political movements after the 1890s, giving particular attention to the anti-Communist crusades of the McCarthy era and the militant conservatism of the Goldwater campaign in 1964. Once again, Hofstadter demonstrated his talent for advancing new historical perspectives by arguing that theories of political motivation that stressed rational sources of human conduct had to be supplemented by social scientific insights into the irrational and even unconscious origins of some political behavior.

In the few remaining years of his life Hofstadter continued to be an active publishing scholar. He produced a large volume, The Progressive Historians (1969), in which he discussed the careers and scholarly contributions of Frederick Jackson Turner, Vernon L. Parrington, and Charles A. Beard. The Idea of a Party System, Hofstadter's analysis of the virtues of the pragmatic and consensusoriented American party system, was published in 1969. He was beginning work on a projected three-volume study of American life (the unfinished first volume of which was published posthumously as America in 1750: A Social Portrait in 1971) at the time of his death from leukemia on October 24, 1970.

Hofstadter's achievement lay not in founding a school, something he made no attempt to do, but in challenging many of the established historical interpretations of his day. The gracefulness of his writing style and the boldness of his treatment of American ideas, reform movements, and political figures made him one of the most widely read and respected historians of the early postwar period.


Further Reading on Richard Hofstadter

The best introduction to Hofstadter's life and work is Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, "Richard Hofstadter: A Progress, " in The Hofstadter Aegis: A Memorial, edited by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick (1974).

Additional Biography Sources

Baker, Susan Stout, Radical beginnings: Richard Hofstadter and the 1930s, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Cremin, Lawrence Arthur, Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970); a biographical memoir, Syracuse, N.Y. National Academy of Education 1972.

The Hofstadter aegis, a memorial, New York, Knopf; distributed by Random House 1974.