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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 in the history profession to which he would have been destined.

He was also spared the pitfalls of dogma and theory and fad by his native skepticism and his abundant good sense. The originator of many new theories and methods of historical analysis, he never became a crusader for any of them or a prisoner of any of them. Critical of many aspects of American life, he never joined the fashionable cult of anti-Americanism. A devoted teacher and friend of students, he never joined the youth cult in juvenophilia. The foremost historian of anti-intellectualism, he rejected the notion that alienation was the only honorable stance of the intellectual.

Whatever the ultimate verdict on his historical scholarship may be, it was already apparent during his life that he had become a figure of pivotal significance in the history of American history. More clearly than any other historian he marked the transition from the Progressive to the post-Progressive era of historiography. As symbolically as any he signified the shift of perspective from the province to the metropolis. And more fully and magnificently than any he exemplified the break from the tradition that bound the professional historian to a restricted period or region and a specialized reading public.

Any one of these rebellions would have filled a normal career, and it is no wonder that the three of them together determined much of the shape and content of his voluminous writings. The rebellion from his Progressive forebears and the struggle for generational identity began early, continued throughout his life, and left us some of the richest historiographical criticism in our literature. His effort to redress the historical perspective long weighted on the side of rural, provincial, Protestant, fundamentalist America has left us a perceptive revision of American political and social history. His adventurous experiments with social science concepts and theories have inspired fruitful techniques and new viewpoints.

To fellow craftsmen, perhaps his revolt against the tradition of specialization was at once the most impressive and the most controversial. No such defiance of tradition could escape challenge, and critics were not lacking. But the rebel went his way undeterred. He followed his first book, which was on the nineteenth century, with a second deeply engaged with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, followed by extensive excursions through the twentieth. Next to his last book took off from the eighteenth century, and his last published was inspired, as much of his history was, by preoccupations with the present.

It seems almost unkind to speak of Richard Hofstadter as a fulfilled historian—when he was cut down so cruelly in his prime, deeply engaged in what appeared to be his most ambitious and promising work. Yet in quantity as well as quality, in grace of style as well as in subtlety of scholarship, in scope of subject as well as in variety of method, the richness and abundance of his creative work proclaim a valorous fulfillment, a great victory of the spirit, a moral triumph that is rare.

Through it all those who knew him best could but marvel at the quiet passion and dedication he threw into his work. There was nothing grim or routine or desperate about it. Rather there was an undertone of gaiety and confidence, very often a spirit of play, serious, but still play. But there was always the same unrelenting selfdiscipline.

He was not always an easy man to vacation with. The beaches tended to be strewn with bibliographical disputation, and languorous tropical mornings tended to be disturbed by the clatter of a typewriter. He gave us all an inferiority complex—which we felt we thoroughly deserved.

Work was indeed a kind of religion with Dick—not pious, not proselytizing, not prideful, but still something transcending the flesh and something distinctly of the spirit. The single aspect of the youth rebellion that troubled him most was the apparent defection from the discipline of creative work.

The only complaint about himself that escaped his lips during his final ordeal with cancer came when he was compelled to pack up his unfinished manuscript, knowing, or half-knowing, he might never return to it. That complaint took the form of one round oath. And it was not about his own fate, but the fate of his work.

In a later and more desperately physical phase of his ordeal, his wife involuntarily exclaimed at some superhuman exertion he was making. “I never had a problem about will,” he replied. It was the flesh that failed him, and the flesh alone.

Toward the end of The Republic, Plato attempts to sum up the ideal aims of the discipline of education. In doing so he puts the following words, according to a recent version, into the mouth of Socrates:

The wise man will give all his powers, all his days, to making the state in his soul more just, more temperate, and more wise, and give the highest place to whatever will make it so. And as to the outcome of it all in the opinions others form of him, and the rewards and honors they offer him, he will keep the same measure before his eyes, and prize only what will make him a better man. In public and private life he will put aside all that might overturn the constitution of his soul.

And that is the way I would like to remember my friend Dick Hofstadter.

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