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History Lesson

August 31, 2006 By:
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For those with certain political leanings who came of age in the 1960s, Richard Hofstadter was the historian of note, the writer from whom we learned much about the American political sensibility and how it worked. The titles of his many books -- distinctive, evocative, unmistakably his -- bring to life an era and a portion of the intellectual underpinnings that animated it: The American Political Tradition; The Age of Reform; Social Darwinism in American Thought; Anti-Intellectualism in American Life; The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

These days, unfortunately, neither his works nor his legacy hold the same potency as they did 40 or 50 years ago, and yet he is still held in high regard by those in the profession and revered by lovers of good historical prose. Which is why it comes as a surprise to learn that David S. Brown's Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, published by University of Chicago Press, is the first truly full-scale life to be done of this once towering figure.

Brown's book is both an intellectual biography and a depiction of the life of a working intellectual. The author covers all the necessary bases, discussing what Hofstadter strove to do in his work, how his books succeeded and where they failed, and the ideas he struggled with in both his professional and personal lives.

There's a citation from Dorothy Ross, of the Johns Hopkins University history department, who studied with Hofstadter at Columbia University. The passage concretely sums up what Hofstadter stood for as a historian and an intellectual.

"In his own day, and his own way, Richard Hofstadter was an exemplar of the engaged historian. Hofstadter was intensely concerned with the political issues of his time and wrote history as a contribution to contemporary political discussion. Primary research -- the sine qua non of the Recovery ideal -- was not his strong point nor the focus of his attention. He wanted to recover the past but that was only part of what he considered the historian's larger job: to explore how we in the present should think about the past and present and to persuasively convey those critical reflections to his readers. Some of Hofstadter's interpretations have stood up well, others not. His political passions marred some of it, but made all of it vivid and helped to break new intellectual ground. His books are still today an education and a pleasure to read. I don't know how many of us can expect to do better."

Brown's biography, from an interpretive perspective, cleaves closely to this analysis, but he's a thorough researcher, and those who know Hofstadter's works, and those who are merely curious about them, will benefit from his close readings of each text. But I have to say that I found the biographical portions of his book far more compelling than anything else here. I must admit that my fascination may stem from knowing so little about Hofstadter's life, aside from his writings.

It's a truly fascinating story, and very much to the point, as Brown makes clear, since Hofstadter's private life did much to shape the content and thought behind his books. Take, for example, that this man who many considered one of the quintessential New York Jewish intellectuals had been, in fact, christened in his mother's Lutheran faith, and so, according to his biographer, "absorbed a host of cultural references rooted in the rhythms and traditions of the nation's interior."

Continues Brown: "His background, in other words, had deep and important connections with the Protestant, property-rights tradition that he wrote against. When Hofstadter arrived in Manhattan in the autumn of 1936, his western New York origins yielded a wonderful sense of perspective that he always cherished. It protected him (though less than he imagined) from the incestuous academic circles, stale debates, and provincial attitudes that sometimes constricted intellectual life in the East. In a letter to David Riesman written in the '50s, Hofstadter suggested that New York intellectuals were out of touch with American life and culture West of the Hudson. They would benefit, he continued, tongue not completely in cheek, from long sabbaticals in Kansas, North Dakota, Utah -- or Buffalo."

'He Came Slowly to Judaism'

Hofstadter was born in Buffalo in 1916. His father, Emil Hofstadter, had left Krakow with his parents in 1896 when he was 8 years old, settling first in London for three years then moving on to New York's Lower East Side. As a teenager, Emil broke with his family, perhaps in reaction to the strict religious Orthodoxy practiced at home. Though Emil's movements during his young manhood have not been documented, he did return to Europe for a time before settling in Buffalo.

Writes Brown: "The Hofstadters -- Emil, Katherine, Richard and his younger sister Betty -- lived on the top floor of a modest two-family home on Welmont Place, a lower-middle-class German American neighborhood located just east of the city center. While Katherine oversaw her children's early spiritual life -- the blue-eyed, towheaded Richard ... sang in the church choir -- Emil emerged as the dominant parent. [He] demanded academic excellence, organized memorable summer excursions to Grand Island, and introduced his children to New York City on rare cross-state trips to visit their uncles. His presence in Richard's life was magnified after Katherine's 1926 death following a brief battle with intestinal cancer. Richard's Grandmother Hill moved in to keep house while Betty was separated from her father and brother, crossing the street to live with her Aunt Gertrude, an Episcopalian who had her deceased sister's children confirmed in her church. On matters of religion, however, Richard took after his father and stopped attending services in his early teens."

Three years after his mother's death, Hofstadter entered Fosdick-Masten Park High School, and established himself as "an active and popular student." Soon after came the stock-market crash; industrial Buffalo "was devastated." But Emil's furrier shop did well, and the family avoided the kind of desperate poverty that hit so many other families in the period.

Emil was, in fact, able to put both his children through college without any help. Richard attended the University of Buffalo, where in his sophomore year he met Felice Swados, who would become his first wife, and who is described as "a driven and intellectually serious senior philosophy major." She was also the sister of Harvey Swados, who would go on to become a prominent novelist.

"Through his association with Felice," writes Brown, "Hofstadter may have unconsciously followed in his father's footsteps by selectively exploring the cultural side of a spiritual system he could never fully embrace. 'He came slowly to Judaism,' Columbia sociologist Daniel Bell noted. 'I think that when he met Felice and that whole Buffalo crowd he became more involved in that mileau. Judaism is a people and a history and Dick came to identify with that.' "

Brown also notes that Hofstadter's relationship with Felice had considerable importance for his later life, since it was through his first wife that he came to know the life of radical politics in Buffalo. "Possessed of a natural intellect and easy self-confidence, he was attracted to Felice's energy, charisma and intensity. More committed to radical politics and the dream of a workers-state than her future husband, she helped initiate Hofstadter into the milieu of left-wing activism at the University of Buffalo. He was never fully immersed. Temperamentally the more careful and detached of the two, he found it impossible to suspend his critical judgment in the name of ideology. By comparison, he described Felice's politics in his correspondence as naive and simple. Hofstadter's solicitous nature and impulsive humility were in striking contrast to his first wife's self-assurance and determination to urge her views on those around her."

The marriage was not an easy one, according to Brown, who characterizes it as filled with competition and stress. Felice died young, like Hofstadter's mother, causing a setback in his life and career.

These are but a few of the defining traits that marked Hofstadter's character and only a minute portion of his life story. Brown tells it all: the struggle to find a suitable and influential position in academia; the effort to write and make a name for himself; the equally important struggle to make his political positions clear. There is much about his second marriage, his personal life as a whole, the social and scholastic atmosphere at Columbia, and Hofstadter's own premature struggle and eventual death from cancer.

Add to all this Brown's analysis of each of Hofstadter's important works, and his book makes for a remarkable tale, well-told, with relevance for our time.


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