Letters From the November 11/December 7, 2020, Issue

Letters From the November 11/December 7, 2020, Issue

Letters From the November 11/December 7, 2020, Issue

Hofstadter’s legacy…


Hofstadter’s Legacy

Re “At Liberalism’s Crossroads” [October 19/26], Jeet Heer’s review of Richard Hofstadter: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956–1965, edited by Sean Wilentz for the Library of America series: Heer takes the collection to task for ignoring Hofstadter’s earlier and, in Heer’s view, more radical work, arguing that it offers a purposefully skewed account of Hofstadter’s thought and career. Readers of The Nation should know that the volume is the first in a long-planned multivolume Hofstadter series. The next volume, also edited by Wilentz, will gather Social Darwinism in American Life and The American Political Tradition, which Heer singles out for praise, along with The Age of Reform and Hofstadter’s uncollected essays from 1938 through 1955.
Max Rudin
President and Publisher, Library of America
new york city

Jeet Heer’s essay on Richard Hofstadter offers an important and timely critique of the historian’s work from the 1950s and ’60s. Equally impressive is his characterization of the author as an “American Gramsci” and his suggestion that Hofstadter’s critique of the Progressive historians might have been enriched by an engagement with Gramsci’s theory of “cultural hegemony.” That said, I believe Heer is mistaken in arguing that in middle age, Hofstadter somehow betrayed a youthful faith in social movements. The Hofstadter who wrote The American Political Tradition was a left pessimist—that is, he advanced a critique of modern capitalism and US political ideology shorn of any hope that the people would rise in some revolutionary movement for their emancipation. That perspective was and remains suspect among those who believe politically engaged intellectual work should consist largely of cheerleading. Of course, one can trace a through line from that position to the elite anti-populist liberalism of his later writings, but that’s a more complex—and to my mind, more interesting—story than one that contrasts a “good” Popular Frontist Hofstadter with a “bad” Cold War liberal Hofstadter.
Casey N. Blake
Director, Center for American Studies, Columbia University
new york city

Heer Responds

I thank Casey Blake for his generous words. I didn’t mean to suggest there was ever a Popular Frontist Hofstadter. Even during his brief membership in the Communist Party, his position is aptly described as left pessimism. Our disagreement is that I think the left pessimist Hofstadter was still open to the possibility of radical agitation as a force for positive change. Hence the approving portrayal of the abolitionist and socialist Wendell Phillips in The American Political Tradition. For this reason, I’d insist Hofstadter’s shift from left pessimism to anti-populism was marked by not just continuity but also, in a crucial way, a genuine break.
Jeet Heer
regina, saskatchewan

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