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.
Do You Still Read Hofstadter?
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?