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On Richard Hofstadter

Even though his career was cut short in its prime, leaving us immeasurably impoverished by his loss, Richard Hofstadter left a full and rounded body of work, not merely one or two important books, the best that most historians can hope for. Each of Hofstadter’s books bore an important relation to its predecessors and to those that were to come; none, accordingly, can be seen in isolation from the others. Hofstadter’s imagination never rested for long, and his thought ranged widely, embracing political, social, and cultural history—he was impatient with such distinctions—and extending to all periods of American history.

Yet his ideas constantly return to certain central preoccupations, stated at the outset of his career. A continuing encounter with the progressive tradition—the tradition on which he and most other intellectuals had been “reared,” as he put it in the introduction to The Age of Reform, but in which he found much to criticize—informs all Hofstadter’s work and provides a direct link, for example, between The American Political Tradition, first published in 1948, and The Progressive Historians, which came out twenty years later.

The continuity of Hofstadter’s altogether remarkable career is all the more apparent if one remembers that his first published essay, appearing in 1938, dealt with Charles A. Beard’s interpretation of the Civil War, and that other early writings included essays on Frederick Jackson Turner, on V.L. Parrington, and once again on Beard—the same writers to whom in The Progressive Historians he returned toward the end of his life.1

Hofstadter’s lifelong engagement with the progressive historians immediately tells us something about The American Political Tradition—the witty, caustic, daring book that first brought Hofstadter’s writing to general attention. That book took shape in a confrontation not only with liberalism in politics but with liberal historiography, and specifically with the three towering figures who had exercised such a powerful influence on the generation of historians immediately preceding Hofstadter’s own, and for that matter on Hofstadter himself, as he tells us in The Progressive Historians. Having taken up American history in the Thirties “under the inspiration that came from Charles and Mary Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization” (just as another generation was to take up American history under the inspiration that came from The American Political Tradition), Hofstadter quickly became dissatisfied with the distortions and simplifications associated with the interpretation of American history as a continuing conflict between antagonistic forms of property—more crudely, as a conflict between the people and “the interests.”2

By the middle Thirties, this progressive or populist interpretation of the American past had lost whatever critical content it might once have possessed and had become identified with a resurgence of American cultural chauvinism, a tiresome celebration of the American past—its indigenous traditions of popular radicalism, the crude vitality of its popular culture, and the national regeneration allegedly in progress under the New Deal. The progressive interpretation of American history, in other words, had helped to bring into being a “literature of hero-worship and national self-congratulation,” which it was one of the stated purposes of The American Political Tradition to deflate.

The most curious aspect of this degeneration of a once critical tradition of thought into a form of cultural nationalism is that it occurred under left-wing auspices. The emergence of the Popular Front in 1935 and the Communist Party’s reassuring announcement that communism could be regarded as “twentieth-century Americanism” had given the signal for the repatriation of a generation of alienated intellectuals. Aestheticism, anti-Americanism, and the cultivation of the inner life went abruptly out of fashion along with the superrevolutionism of “third-period” communism, which had dismissed the reform tradition in the United States as petty bourgeois reaction and the New Deal as incipient fascism. Progressivism and the progressive interpretation of history underwent a revival, and the search for native traditions of politics and culture became a minor industry.

Van Wyck Brooks, formerly an astringent critic of American culture, embarked on his nostalgic evocations of the nineteenth century in Makers and Finders. The debunking biographical essays of the Twenties and early Thirties gave way to filiopietistic commemorations of popular heroes—Sandburg’s Lincoln, Van Doren’s Franklin, Freeman’s Lee—in which the sheer accumulation of empirical detail served to lull readers into an acquiescent, appreciative mood. Archibald MacLeish, always a reliable weathervane, forsook the avant-gardism of his Poundian phase and threw down what he described as

…loudmouthed, disrespectful, horselaughing challenges to those who tell us poetry is “pure”…[and] written about the feeling of being dreadfully alone.

Other poets responded eagerly to his call for “public speech.” Thomas Hart Benton underwent a similar conversion, moving from New York to Missouri and from abstract art to populist neoregionalism, proclaiming the death of “the great cities.” Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis Mumford exalted regionalism over urbanism. “Instead of clinging to the sardonic funeral towers of metropolitan finance,” wrote the latter, “ours to march out to newly plowed fields, to create fresh patterns of political action, to alter for human purposes the perverse mechanisms of our economic regime, to conceive and to germinate fresh forms of human culture.”3

The most effective criticism of the excesses and absurdities associated with this latest and much-acclaimed “American renaissance” came from the left, like the “renaissance” itself—notably from the group of intellectuals affiliated with or close to Partisan Review. This magazine broke away from the Stalinist literary movement in 1936 and re-emerged a year later as an independent journal, Marxist in its general intellectual outlook, anti-Stalinist in its politics, and resolutely opposed to the subordination of art and culture to the political needs of the moment. The Partisan Review critics charged neopopulist writers with “ransacking” the past, as Richard Chase put it in an attack on Mumford—that is, with “conducting armed raids on history” so as to build up an ersatz cultural tradition, a mythical organic community.

Without denying the connection between culture and politics or the need for historical criticism of both, these intellectuals drew a distinction between history conceived as a “usable past”—the conception promoted by Brooks, Beard, and Carl Becker—and history seen as an accumulation of experience; between “using” the past and assimilating it. Just as children do not “use” their mothers but are formed by them, so, they insisted, each generation is formed by its predecessors, and the problem for historical analysis is not to invent a past relevant to the needs of the present but to become critically conscious of these influences.4

The position formulated by the Partisan Review critics implied an emphatic rejection of the progressive historiography of Parrington, Beard, and Carl Becker, and also, it should be noted, of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier theory of American history. American progressivism, these writers correctly perceived, was historically bound up with “the optimistic idea of an expanding American world,” a vision of “limitless space” that “idealizes an earlier stage of popular rule as a norm of democracy constantly threatened and regained.”5 Not only the superficiality of progressivism but the radical discontinuity of American culture, it seemed to these writers, derived from the ceaseless search for beginnings of which the frontier had provided the most durable set of images—the flight from complexity, the flight from the past, the belief that the past is an encumbrance that can painlessly be discarded in the restless search for a better future.

It is not difficult to recognize in this critique of progressive political culture and its “Marxist” offshoots of the Thirties the central themes of Hofstadter’s early work. Like the Partisan Review critics, Hofstadter had been drawn to Marxism and to the economic interpretation of history, only to witness at close range their degeneration into an official culture (as Meyer Schapiro put it in his polemic against Benton) “local in content, national in scale.”

Personally as well as temperamentally Hofstadter was close to the PR group. Schapiro, Chase, F. W. Dupee, Lionel Trilling, Eric Bentley, and C. Wright Mills were his colleagues at Columbia. His friend Alfred Kazin, a frequent contributor to Partisan Review, wrote one of the most convincing indictments of the nationalist revival in the last chapter—“America, America!”—of his brilliant study of American letters, On Native Grounds. It is possible to see The American Political Tradition, which appeared only six years after Kazin’s book, as an attempt to do for the study of American politics something of what Kazin had done for literary history. Both books place the problem of American traditions at the center of attention (thereby revealing their origins in the literary wars of the late Thirties); but instead of celebrating these traditions, in the manner of progressive and neopopulist historians, they remorselessly reveal their inadequacies.

Highly critical of their predecessors, both writers nevertheless absorbed whatever was valuable in their work. Just as Kazin’s book retains the best of Van Wyck Brooks, Hofstadter’s analysis still shows the influence of Beard. Like Beard, Hofstadter admires the political realism of the founding fathers and associates this quality, throughout The American Political Tradition, with an understanding of the “economic basis of politics.” But whereas Beard had seen the Jeffersonian tradition as a clear-cut alternative to the Federalist tradition and the continuing conflict between the two as the major theme of American history, Hofstadter treats Jefferson precisely as the first in a long series of opportunists whose principal role in American politics was to blur ideological conflicts and to promote business interests while rhetorically denouncing them in the name of agrarian democracy.

Instead of two clearly defined and opposing traditions à la Beard and Parrington, Hofstadter finds in American history a series of opportunistic evasions, compromises, and self-delusions. The ironic juxtapositions so often emphasized in the titles of these essays are intended not merely to debunk the literature of hero worship—forcing us to see Lincoln, for example, as an important source of the self-help ideology or Theodore Roosevelt as a conservative—but to point up the confusion of roles, the bizarre disguises leading statesmen have been forced to adopt, the conflicts between intentions and consequences that abound in a political system lacking any firm ideological basis (except in so far as the tradition of economic realism survived as an undercurrent).

In stressing the lack of serious ideological conflict in American society—as when he brilliantly revised the conventional interpretation of the Jacksonians as a movement of embattled farmers confronting the money power, showing them instead to have been aspiring capitalists chafing under centralized restraints—Hofstadter undoubtedly helped to prepare the way for the consensus theorists of the 1950s, who saw ideological agreement not only as a principal feature of the American system but as the source of its stability.

Hofstadter’s intention in The American Political Tradition, however, had nothing in common with the celebration of American “pragmatism.” On the contrary, he saw this agreement as a form of intellectual bankruptcy and as a reflection, moreover, not of a healthy sense of the practical but of the domination of American political thought by popular mythologies: the frontier, the sturdy yeoman, self-help, and God and motherhood. An urbanite to the core, writing at a time when the best writers and critics were in recoil from the updated version of the agrarian myth associated with the neopopulism of the Thirties, Hofstadter found in sentimental agrarianism a particularly flagrant example of the unreality of American political rhetoric—a nation of industrialists, clerks, and workers pretending to be sturdy sons of the soil. His attack on the agrarian illusion reaches comic heights in the essay on Bryan—a representative figure, in Hofstadter’s view, not only because he clung to the agrarian myth long after it had lost all semblance of reality but because he gave his constituents “not so much leadership as expression,” thereby “freezing the popular cause at its lowest level of understanding.”

  1. 1

    The Tariff Issue on the Eve of the Civil War,” American Historical Review, 1938, pp. 50-55; “Parrington and the Jeffersonian Tradition,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 1941, pp. 391-400; “Turner and the Frontier Myth,” American Scholar, 1949, pp. 433-443; “Beard and the Constitution,” American Quarterly, 1950, pp. 195-213.

  2. 2

    The Progressive Historians, p. xiv.

  3. 3

    Our age is rich in political and spiritual conversions,” wrote Morton Dauwen Zabel in a fierce polemic against MacLeish, “The Poet on Capitol Hill,” Partisan Review, January-February, 1941, pp. 7, 9; see also Meyer Schapiro on Benton, “Populist Realism,” ibid., January, 1937, pp. 53-57, and on Mumford, “Looking Forward to Looking Backward,” ibid., July, 1938, pp. 12-24. An important essay on the Thirties by Warren Susman (“The Thirties,” in Norman Ratner and Stanley Coben, eds., The Development of American Culture [1970], pp., 179-218) points out that the popularization of the concept of culture—in the sense of a whole way of life, organically rooted in the everyday experience of the folk—provides an important clue to one of the overriding intellectual preoccupations of the decade: the search for native political traditions and for the roots of an authentic popular culture.

  4. 4

    Richard Chase, “The Armed Obscurantist,” Partisian Review, Summer, 1944, pp. 346-348; William Phillips and Philip Rahv, “Some Aspects of Literary Criticism,” Science and Society, Winter, 1937, p. 217. For the concept of a “usable past” see Van Wyck Brooks, “On Creating a Usable Past,” Dial, April 11, 1918, pp. 337-341, and Carl Becker’s well-known essay, “Everyman His Own Historian” (1931).

  5. 5

    Meyer Schapiro, “Populist Realism,” Partisan Review, January, 1937, pp. 55-56.

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