U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Do You Still Read Hofstadter?

In continuation of what appears to be a series, I’d like to talk about Richard Hofstadter. Hofstadter, of course, was the American political historian who taught at Columbia with other academic luminaries such as Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun. Though an immaculate stylist and one of the most influential historians of his generation, Hofstadter’s star faded upon his (premature) death, before experiencing a slight revival with the publication of of David S. Brown’s Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. Today his reputation is unclear to me, and I can’t quite figure out the status of his work, even when it overlaps with my own field.

Hofstadter introduced several hugely influential terms into historical analysis and public debate, many of which you still hear: “status anxiety,” “anti-intellectualism in American life,” and “the paranoid style of American politics.” And his books continue to be known, though many of them have various problems. I still run across references to his first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, though I’ve never had the occasion to read it. His second book, The American Political Tradition, would prove the most lasting, but after Rogers Smith’s work positing multiple traditions in American political life, I’m not sure that Hofstadter’s book can hold up. The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, as Brian Ingrassia has pointed out in a recent comment, remains the fullest statement of academic freedom (at least as far as I know), even though it is so old. I’ve heard numerous people call Anti-Intellectualism in American Life a “brilliant but flawed book,” but whenever I press them on the flaws, they are never quite forthcoming. The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays continues to be known mainly for the titular essay. And, finally, there is The Age of Reform, a book that is still widely read but, many people assure me, the most problematic of the lot. In short, many of his books are still in some kind of circulation, some more than fifty years after he wrote them, but they are all of uncertain reliability.
So how are we to regard Richard Hofstadter? I think I’m not alone when I say that I have long had an intellectual crush on him. And I suspect that one of the reasons that his work is still read is that, even if you think that he is historiographically dated, he is just so fun to read. But what is the academic status of his individual works and of his oeuvre as a whole?

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hofstadter’s analysis of the 1964 Goldwater campaign was sound and still well worth reading.

    It’s popularity – or at least frequent mentions – among the punditocracy in connection with the Tea Party has generally been very superficial, though. It’s true that there are strong continuities between the paranoid conspiracy theories of that day and those of the Tea Party groups today.

    But our star pundits take the lesson from Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style” that embracing such far-right notions will be electoral poison for the Republicans and that the more sensible folks in the Party will edge them out. Yet the history of the Radical Right didn’t end in 1964. The current Republican Party was reshaped in Goldwater’s image and is arguable more conservative than it was when he was its Presidential nominee. (If I didn’t know what wise and thorough people our leading pundits are, I might suspect that they cite Hofstadter on Goldwater because it’s the only scholarly work on the far right they remember hearing about in college.)

    One substantive problem with Hofstadter’s analysis is that he drew a contrast between the alleged differences in Goldwater’s radicalism and the responsible conservative of Ohio Sen. Robert Taft a decade or so earlier. In fact, Taft was an Old Right isolationist and a hardline conservative. It’s a rhetorical slight-of-hand that doesn’t hold up very well.

  2. I’m prone to echo what you write here, David. I, too, have a huge academic crush on Hofstadter, who is indeed incredibly fun to read. I’d add that though the big arguments of a number of his books have been eclipsed, his work is really rich and multifaceted. If you haven’t picked up a given Hofstadter book in awhile, it’s easy to make the mistake of reducing it to its thesis–which tended to be clear and strongly argued…but has since probably been called into question. But every time I pick up a Hofstadter book, I discover new things in it. There’s a lot to grapple with in these books!

    That being said, Hofstadter is an author with whom I would insist graduate students grapple, but whom I’d be unlikely to assign to undergrads.

  3. Hofstadter is not only delightful to read, he’s also extremely pertinent to historians of the early Cold War. Hofstadter was the most preeminent and popular historian of the 1945-1968 period, and his ideas are worth reading if only for what they expose about the way that liberals of that period viewed of the American past, and how those ideas shaped thinking about the contemporary challenges facing liberalism during that time, both at home and abroad.

    Another book of his that I really enjoyed was The Idea of a Party System, which like his Age of Reform has been eclipsed, but remains eminently worth reading, if only for its portrait of the Adams-Jefferson rivalry.

  4. The David Brown biography points out a significant reason why many of Hofstadter’s historical arguments have not stood the test of time. Hofstadter tended to fetishize social scientific theory while at the same time disdaining archives. While I am not saying that good history cannot be written without archival sources (or with theory), combining the two on a regular basis would seem to maximize the chances of devising a thesis that–while interesting and topical–does not withstand subsequent rigorous analysis by an entire generation of professionally trained historians.

    On an unrelated note, _Social Darwinism_ is an interesting book. It overestimated the impact of Darwinian thought in late-1800s America and at times mischaracterized its importance; but even then, it is also true that some of the historians who have refuted that book (I am thinking of Bannister) went too far in trying to rescue the reputation of Darwinian theorists. Hofstadter’s book is still a useful treatment of the subject, although one should handle it with historiographical care. I also find it intriguing that this book–perhaps one of Hofstadter’s books that has best endured as a piece of academic scholarship rather than a primary source that captures the spirit of the age–is the one based on his dissertation.

  5. It’s no secret to long-time USIH readers that I find a lot to admire in Hofstadter’s *Anti-Intellectualism in American Life*. I read it less for its precision, or strict historical accuracy, than as a framework for thinking about anti-intellectualism in U.S. history. The problem is that are few other books, meaning solid histories, that deal with the topic explicitly. Yes, Susan Jacoby’s *The Age of American Unreason* covers similar ground, but it’s weaknesses have been pointed out here (and some here) and in the NYT, now behind a paywall, I believe). So yes, I still read Hofstadter (on occasion). Sadly, however, I have not read David Brown’s well-thought-of biography. – TL

  6. This “do you still read X?” series troubles me a little bit because of it’s unstated assumptions about the reasons for reading, some of which come out in the comments. Given that one of the benefits of historical modes of thinking is a commitment to “the long view,” there is implied here a somewhat “short view” understanding of the purposes of historiography. The idea seems to be, either we regard Hofstadter (or whomever) as “holding up”–meaning not having been surpassed and undermined by more recent scholarship–or we should not bother reading him. Or if we do read him, it should be as a primary source for understanding Cold War liberalism more generally (I agree with Nils’s view about this, by the way), rather than for understanding historiography . Stated otherwise: works of history should speak to our current ideas and sensibilities about how to think about the past, or we should regard them as outdated and not worth reading. This idea is reproduced in graduate seminars in which students are assigned to read books written in the last five to ten years, and essentially denied the bigger picture to frame that current scholarship. I guess I think intellectual historians, of all people, might want to think about this differently. The reason to read Hofstadter is because books like The Age of Reform defined a set of questions and problems that have shaped the study of American liberalism and reform movements: what is the relationship between Populism, Progressivism, and the New Deal? To what extent were reform movements backward looking and to what extent did they address the conditions of a modern corporate economic and social order? What were the ideological limits of reform? These and other questions shaped generations of historiography, even those that explicitly rejected Hofstadter’s arguments. And it might be useful to know alternative ways of thinking about and interpreting these problems than the ones that are currently accepted, and that we imagine in another fifty years will be assigned to the dustbin. I don’t mean to threadjack here, but thought it was worth saying. And, yes, I still read Hofstadter.

  7. Dan: As the person who started this series, I should say that I think you make great points. We could all benefit from a heavy dose of long-view historiography. So the next question: Do you still read Beard?

  8. Like Dan, I have been uncomfortable with this series and have been reluctant to comment on it for that reason. My graduate training was not in history, so for me the social norms of the discipline took some getting used to. One thing that I noticed early on, though, was that people would roll their eyes or laugh at the mention of republicanism or the frontier hypothesis, but when I would ask what exactly had been disproven about these ideas, these same people often could not tell me with any specificity, and answers would often boil down to “no one does that anymore.”

    So I have come to believe that one trait shared by some (but by no means all) historians is an occasional smugness toward one’s intellectual forbears. This is not a common trait in all disciplines. (Of course, it is not completely foreign to the other fields either. I am still amazed every time a psychologist mocks Freud, though it happens all the time. By way of contrast, I have never heard a philosopher speak about Plato with anything short of reverence.)

    All of our books will someday be subject to the treatment of being “too mired in the concerns of the early 21st century,” unless they suffer the even worse fate of being ignored and forgotten. As a discipline, history seems to abjure the notion of a “classic” book, to which later readers return with great satisfaction even if recognizing its limitations. (This is why people keep getting frustrated with those “canon” lists that people post here from time to time. There is no widespread agreement about what such a list is supposed to represent, or whether it should even exist.) There is, of course, a great irony in historians writing off those who formulated their ideas under an earlier set of presumptions, as the phenomenon represents a prime example of presentism.

    So, dammit, yes, I still read Louis Hartz!

  9. Mike,

    Though historians are certainly capable of being flip about our intellectual forebears, I don’t honestly think we’re particularly bad in this regard.

    Though you obviously know the inner workings of philosophy as a discipline better than I do, Gil Harman at Princeton was famous for having a sign on his office door that read “History of Philosophy: Just Say No!”

    And the sociologist Orlando Patterson at Harvard attacked my undergraduate major (called Social Studies) for requiring its students to intensively read great social theorists from the past Max Weber and Emile Durkheim.


    It’s not my thread, but that comment is most certainly not threadjacking. FWIW, I wholeheartedly agree with it.

  10. Ben: Did Gil Harmon object to reading histories of philosophy due to their inaccuracies and errors, or to the notion of looking at history at all for any philosophical insights—a practice, by the way, encouraged by Aristotle? Either way, it seems like a silly statement.

    To all: I don’t object to the “do you still read X” series in general. But I will say that, methodologically, my eclecticism prevents from excluding, for any prima facie reason, a history book that contains information relevant to my topic ~simply~ because of the changed nature of the way historians, over time, formulate questions. In other words, my general answer to every question in a series like this would be “it depends on what topic I’m studying.” But I’ll read any historian, from any time frame, regardless of their perspective. Their perspective may prevent me from reading a history intensely or closely, but I’ll still read it. I’m a pragmatist in that I believe some new truth may arise from reading all kinds of books in relation to a topic at hand. – TL

  11. It could be that the post (and the series) is badly titled, but I don’t see the reason for the concern (at least in this series) that Dan Wickberg and Mike O’Connor voice. After all, the three posts on Nash, Schlesinger, and Hofstadter all presumed that we still read them. So the real questions beneath the stated question are: How do you read them? Why or to what intellectual end do you read them? In what intellectual context do you read them? How do they relate to more recent historiography or even to antecedent historiography? And so on. So although I agree with Dan and Mike in principle, it seems to me that by asking the question and discussing older historiography, we are in fact working against the concerns that both Dan and Mike raise.

  12. Andrew–
    Yes, I still read Beard (reading his famous essay from the 1930s, “Written HIstory as an Act of Faith” is a useful corrective to the idea that the postmodernist relativism of the 1960s undermined the ideal of objectivity). And, yes, I still read Turner (“Turnerians All,” said Patricia Nelson Limerick, indicating the long sway of Turner’s presence even on those who rejected him), and I still read Parrington. And I even still read Hofstadter on Beard, Turner, and Parrington! (Had to get that last one in, since nobody in this thread has referenced Hofstadter’s _The Progressive Historians_). But how far back do you want to go–I confess I still read Herodotus and Thucydides, too!

    I was responding specifically to the frame of the question, and the tone of a number of comments that speak of X work as being surpassed, or no longer useful or valuable, with a kind of progressive confidence that the march of scholarship has rendered them obsolete and that today’s scholarship is closer to the truth. If that’s not your position, glad to hear it! It certainly wasn’t my intention to suggest that discussing the significance of Nash, Schlesinger, or Hofstadter was something that in itself was avoiding the “long view.”

  13. Tim,

    Harman was objecting to requiring PhD students in philosophy at Princeton to study the history of philosophy. And, yes, that was a silly position (though I think he’s only owned up to its having been a silly way of expressing that position).

    Harman, like a number of other analytic philosophers, apparently really does have the kind of progressive confidence that the march of scholarship has rendered earlier work obsolete that Dan worries some of us have expressed in these threads vis a vis older works of history. (And if I gave the impression of having done so in earlier comments, I really didn’t mean to, as I don’t have that kind of confidence.)

  14. Dan, Mike, and others bring up some good points. Here are four additional ways of framing the question, and my answers:

    Q: Would I read Hofstadter as a primary source to understand 1950s liberalism?
    A: Yes

    Q: Would I read Hofstadter to understand the origins of a number of different historiographical debates?
    A: Absolutely

    Q: Would I read Hofstadter in order to better understand a particular theme or topic in American history?
    A: Well, maybe, as long as I read a number of other (more recent) books on the same topic.

    Q: Would I read Hofstadter in order to prepare a lecture for an undergraduate course?
    A: Probably not, with the likely exception of _Development of Academic Freedom_ and parts of _Social Darwinism_. Or if it was a lecture about historiography, and then I’d skim.

    Maybe this will help us reframe the way we think about this series, which I find interesting. I used to have conversations like this in grad school, but now I’m too busy teaching a 4-4 of virtually all surveys to have those conversations anymore. Yeah, growing up sucks.

  15. I do. I’ve got a little Hofstadter section on my bookshelf in the office.

    Keep an eye out for Larry Friedman’s forthcoming book about Hofstadter’s New York. Should be really good.

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