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Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography
David S. Brown
University of Chicago Press, 2006
320 pp., $30.00
Allen C. Guelzo
History with a Smirk
Fashion is fickle even among historians. At the time of his death from leukemia in the fall of 1970, Richard Hofstadter was Columbia University's DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Reform in 1956 and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1964), intellectual godfather to Eric McKitrick, Christopher Lasch, Linda Kerber, and Eric Foner, vice-president of the Organization of American Historians, and an oracle among American historians. Today, Hofstadter's reputation is nearly as dead as Marley's doornail. His books remain in print, but they tend to be read as period pieces, or as provocatively entertaining essays, rather than serious historical analysis. They are the sort of thing one assigns to undergraduates to perk up interest in an American history survey course, or to graduates in a seminar devoted to historical fashions.
Although Hofstadter died at the comparatively young age of 54, he was part of a generation, along with Arthur Schlesinger, Bernard De Voto, Daniel Boorstin, and Perry Miller, which still understood history writing to be a species of the humanities, in which felicity of style and a Continental broadness of interpretive reach were virtues. He had a vague identification with late 19th-century American thought, through The Age of Reform and Social Darwinism in American Thought (his first book, in 1944), but for all practical purposes, there was no specific "era" on which he hung his hat. In truth, Hofstadter was an editorialist of the American experience, and he was profoundly uninterested in either slogging monkishly through archives, or the people who worked in them (whom he described as "archive rats"). Conclusions rather than method, and bon mots rather than footnotes, were his long suit. "If one were to compare the proportion of time given to expression with that given to research," he once remarked, "my emphasis is on the first." Even though he filled the most prestigious chair ...