David Brown’s biography of Richard Hofstadter has attracted an unusual amount of attention for a revised dissertation, riding the wave of nostalgia that surrounds the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and liberal icon of the 1950s and ’60s. At the New York Times Book Review, the book was the subject of the longest review of the year, and one of the most admiring, written by the editor himself, Sam Tanenhaus, who declared Hofstadter “more relevant than ever.” The New Republic ran an even longer piece by Bancroft Prize winner Sean Wilentz about Hofstadter’s “enormous mystique today.” That mystique reflects a deeper nostalgia for a time when historians who addressed the political issues of the day (among them Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and C. Vann Woodward) had immense intellectual authority and a wide readership, a time when essays written with style and grace were honored and a time when writing about great white men did not make you look obsolete or reactionary.
The Hofstadter nostalgia boom is also fueled by readers who find in his work a foreshadowing of their own anxiety about the irrationality of populist movements. His feeling that populism posed a danger to democracy seems to liberals and conservatives alike to speak to our own time–as indeed in many ways it does. Many writers seeking to understand the 2004 “red state” phenomenon turned to Hofstadter’s essays on “status anxiety” and “the paranoid style in American politics”–especially after George W. Bush mobilized his supporters with a good-old-boy rhetoric that was proudly stupid.
There’s no question that Hofstadter’s writing was wonderful. But his understanding of the American past now seems narrow and flawed, and marked, inevitably, by the preoccupations of a generation that lived through Hitler and Stalin, by a gnawing anxiety that some kind of American fascism, a vicious right-wing movement coming out of the heartland, was not only possible but likely. (Such anxiety has not, to be sure, entirely dissipated among American liberals; early next year journalist Chris Hedges is publishing a book, American Fascists, about the Christian right.)
Hofstadter died in 1970, just as a new generation of historians was transforming the profession by turning away from the study of elites. Inspired by British historians of the working class like E.P. Thompson, and by American New Left historians like Herbert Gutman, they began exploring, and celebrating, how history was made by ordinary Americans: by working-class immigrants in the tenements, the taverns and the factories, and by African-Americans and other oppressed groups. This “history from below” represented a defiant challenge to Hofstadter’s kind of history.
But if Hofstadter seems newly relevant today, it’s not for the reasons imagined by Tanenhaus and others. Despite his fame and success, he was always more of an outsider than his establishment admirers have understood. He disdained the 1950s celebration of consensus; he was deeply skeptical of the liberal heroes, especially FDR; he was never much of an anti-Communist; and when the student antiwar movement excoriated the hypocrisies and failures of the universities, Hofstadter, virtually alone among his entire cohort, refused to condemn the students and agreed with them on some key issues, even as he rejected their militant tactics. Thus while Hofstadter was in some ways a predictable member of his generation, in others he was politically more complicated and intellectually more surprising. It is these elements, rather than his particular arguments, that make him significant for us today.
Hofstadter was born in Buffalo in 1916 and came of age in the era of the Popular Front. He went to college at the University of Buffalo and became president of his university’s chapter of the National Student League, a Communist-led antiwar organization that, according to a government report quoted by Brown, “attempted physical disruption of campus activities which led to arrest, suspensions and expulsions of its members” (foreshadowing his students at Columbia in ’68). In his early twenties, he went to Mississippi with his passionate left-wing wife, Felice Swados, and visited black sharecroppers at Delta Cooperative, the subject of a famous series of photographs by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration. His 1938 master’s thesis at Columbia was a fierce indictment of the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Act for supporting Southern planters rather than poor farmers.