Richard Hofstadter, 1916–1970

The following was given at a memorial service in New York for Richard Hofstadter, who died of leukemia on October 24, at the age of fifty-four.

I speak in the presence of those who knew and loved Richard Hofstadter best and therefore with the knowledge that nothing I can say will fully express their sense of loss and grief. I will not even be able to put my own feelings into words, much less the feelings of those of you who have known him better and longer, even less those of his family. He was too much a part of our own lives, too much a point of reference in our thoughts, too deeply fixed in our hearts, and the pain of his loss is too raw and too recent to be expressed, much less healed, by words.

My own friendship with Dick goes back to a chance meeting in Washington at the end of the Great War. It developed over the years and has continued for a quarter of a century until his death. It never seemed to be handicapped by the considerable differences in our backgrounds and points of view, and I am as certain as I am of anything that it was never interrupted or threatened by sharp disagreements over our common field of scholarship, even those publicly expressed. It was the very assurance of this that made our friendship possible and enriched its quality. One of his finest traits was his talent not only for giving but for receiving friendship and love.

Like others of his friends, I learned to understand and appreciate his unusual qualities of mind and spirit. They were not always readily apparent. What might first appear to be a chronic melancholia really masked a mischievous wit and a marvelous gift for spotting the absurd. They are the talents out of which great satirists and caricaturists are made. His friends say that the history profession robbed the stage of one of its most gifted mimes. He could imitate anything—domestic animals, public figures, private acquaintances—nothing seemed beyond his range.

As a historian he devoted much of his attention to the odd, the warped, the zanies, and the crazies of American life—left, right, and middle. Once on a quiet summer evening he remarked that the bobwhite across the field (or was it a whippoorwill?) was just like one of his “one-idea men.” Dick seemed to have a solid understanding, if not a private affection, for his one-idea men. He combined this with a mastery of the common touch that was essential to a historian destined, as he once said, “to look at a society like ours from its nether end.”

An intensely private man, he stubbornly resisted public appearances, large conventions, and elaborate conferences. At any conference he did attend he was likely to be the one with the most important things to say and at the same time the one to say the least. He was mercifully spared the public roles …

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