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,”…

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