Politics Without Politics: Seeing History From the Center

Richard Hofstadter spent most his adult life in the “Upper West Side Kibbutz,” an area of Morningside Heights bounded by

Richard Hofstadter spent most his adult life in the “Upper West Side Kibbutz,” an area of Morningside Heights bounded by Claremont Avenue, Riverside Drive and Columbia’s Hamilton Hall. Of the eminences who inhabited this neighborhood in the 1950’s—Daniel Bell, Peter Gay, Irving Kristol, Lionel Trilling—Hofstadter achieved the most impressive mix of critical and commercial success.

He published prodigiously: more than a dozen major books, collections and anthologies; a textbook that introduced thousands of college students to history; plus a handful of first-rate ruminations laid away in the magazines and journals. The American Political Tradition (1948) sold 400,000 copies in its first two decades. The Age of Reform (1955) and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) each won the Pulitzer Prize. Even lesser volumes called out high praise. Gore Vidal described The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965) as “a most engaging essay” and commended Hofstadter as one the “best contemporary critics” of “the collective madness of the electorate.” In 1970, Hofstadter signed a contract with Knopf, his longtime publisher, for a three-volume history of American political culture. The trilogy was to take 18 years to complete, and was to earn the author $1.3 million in today’s dollars, according to David Brown’s new biography.

Hofstadter’s reputation is strong among contemporary historians of the United States, and his books still sell briskly. Mr. Brown’s biography should be welcomed accordingly. It’s a quiet book for a quiet life: a childhood in Buffalo as the son of a Jewish father and a Lutheran mother; an early marriage to Felice Swados, a hot-blooded fellow student at the University of Buffalo; emigration to New York City in the middle of the Great Depression; a brief membership in the Communist Party; then graduate school at Columbia, followed by a rise to prominence in the 1940’s and 50’s. No reversals, no scandals, no puzzling discrepancies, no purblind mistakes. From beginning to end, Hofstadter held the confidence of the center. In high school, he was both valedictorian and class president. In 1968, after Columbia University president Grayson Kirk discredited himself, it was Hofstadter who stepped forward to deliver the commencement address to the shattered campus. He’s still the only member of the faculty so entrusted, according to Mr. Brown.

A moderate by temperament and an historian by training, Hofstadter was an intellectual by conviction. The animus of his thought set the life of the mind against “the populistic democracy.” To the activist wing of the left, he resolved the conflict in favor of conservatism, for he insisted on the value of civility and on the need for institutions to uphold it. “In this age of rather overwhelming organizations and collectivities,” he said at the 1968 commencement, “the university is singular in being a collectivity that serves as a citadel of intellectual individualism.” To the activist wing of the right, he transformed dissent into pathology. “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” one of his early essays about McCarthyism, set out to explain “its dense and massive irrationality.” But Hofstadter won his insights into the emotional roots of mass movements from a certain detachment from politics as such. “I can no longer describe myself as a radical,” he said in a 1962 letter, “though I don’t consider myself to be a conservative either. I suppose the truth is, although my interests are still very political, I none the less have no politics.” One of his essays on the Goldwater insurgency, “The Contemporary Extreme Right Wing in the United States,” carried a preface by Nietzsche on the “herd mentality.”

Mr. Brown records Hofstadter’s hypochondria and suggests that the premature deaths of his mother and first wife affirmed his natural melancholy. But the main incidents and sentiments of Hofstadter’s life do not make for a very interesting portrait. The significance collects in the writings. Hofstadter was the postwar historian most respected by Trilling—and by Messrs. Bell, Gay and Kristol—because the quality of his convictions bespoke a traditional Jewish mistrust of passion in politics at a time when that mistrust seemed most necessary. The absence of dogmatism and jargon in his writings has attracted a variety of historians-as-cultural-critics. Eric Foner, a former student, has written admiringly about him. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has observed that he was the first major historian to come out of New York City.

Hofstadter’s anatomies of extremism, moreover, can be read with much interest in our age of political hatred and culture war. Though it’s rarely consulted in these days of furious party competition, the genre to which his work belongs has much to say about the decline of argument and the relationship between politics and emotion. Hofstadter’s distinction was to marry the conceptual sophistication in such works as Harold Lasswell’s Psychopathology and Politics and Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality with an unusually deft prose style. The portrait of John Calhoun etched in The American Political Tradition, for example, mixed the Marxist theory of false consciousness with a style attuned to irony and paradox: “Calhoun was a minority spokesman in a democracy, a particularist in an age of nationalism, a slaveholder in an age of advancing liberties, and an agrarian in a furiously capitalistic country. Quite understandably he developed a certain perversity of mind.”

Hofstadter’s method (“literary anthropology,” he once called it) also commends him to us today, since our best writers have no ideas and our best thinkers have no style. Hofstadter grew to maturity in the mid-1940’s, alongside a generation of intellectuals searching for a style freed of the sectarian solemnity of the Depression decade. Dwight Macdonald titled a 1943 Partisan Review essay “A Rousseau for the NAM.” Soon afterward, C. Wright Mills titled one of his essays “A Marx for the Managers.” Hofstadter followed suit in The American Political Tradition, titling his chapter on Calhoun “the Marx of the Master Class.” The book, a collection of biographical portraits, made Thomas Jefferson “the Aristocrat as Democrat” and Franklin Roosevelt “the Patrician as Opportunist,” and so on. Academic historians read The American Political Tradition as a founding text in the “consensus” interpretation of politics, but it was the playful irreverence of the portraits, the mocking accent, which resounded in the public’s ears. Hofstadter said of Calhoun: “There is no record that he ever read or tried to write poetry, although there is a traditional gibe to the effect that he once began a poem with ‘Whereas,’ and stopped.”

David Brown calls Hofstadter “a modern-day Mencken,” but like much else in this biography, he leaves the comparison to sit on the page with nothing much to do. It’s not obvious that Hofstadter and Mencken have anything in common. Mencken was an entertainer and a philistine who attacked the possibility of moral passion. Hofstadter was morally engaged in his times in positive as well as negative ways. Mencken drew all the wrong conclusions from his exposure to Herbert Spencer (“social Darwinism in shirtsleeves” was his philosophy, according to Terry Teachout). Hofstadter’s first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, praised the pragmatists for rescuing the theory of evolution from petit bourgeois bachelors like Mencken, who were always smacking people across the face with “survival of the fittest” slogans.

And yet there is a remarkable similarity in their cultural criticism. Probably no two writers did more damage to the reputation of prairie radicalism. The American Political Tradition attacked the populist leader William Jennings Bryan in the same urbane manner, and for many of the same reasons, as Mencken’s famous obituary in the American Mercury. Of Bryan’s 1896 campaign for the Presidency on a free-silver platform, Hofstadter quipped: “It was the only time in the history of the Republic when a candidate ran for presidency on the strength of a monomania.” The Age of Reform returned to the subject with a vengeance. The book argued that, rather than being crushed by “the interests,” the farmers had lacked the moral and imaginative resources by which to respond intelligently to the transformations wrought by industrialism. Hofstadter assailed the “pathetic postwar career of Bryan,” bemoaned the “shabbiness of the evangelical mind,” and dismissed rational grounds for the populist complaint. Mencken lampooned the genteel tradition for its unreality. Hofstadter set out to destroy the sentimental treatment of agrarian radicalism in the writings of Charles Beard and Frederick Jackson Turner.

The Columbia historian Alan Brinkley has called The Age of Reform “the most influential book ever published on the history of twentieth-century America.” This is true but not necessarily salutary. Hofstadter’s mockery made it possible for generations of urban liberals to sneer at the “folklore of populism” without confronting its criticisms of industrial capitalism, much as Mencken made it easy for generations of conservatives to mistake smartness for intelligence. Mr. Brown, interestingly, says Hofstadter later softened his attack on the farmers when he was confronted with evidence that anti-Semitism was as strong in the eastern cities as it had been in the Midwest. (If Hofstadter had learned of Mencken’s own anti-Semitism, perhaps he would have made more such concessions.) In any case, the social thought of Christopher Lasch, a Hofstadter student, and the writings of Wendell Berry show that today’s populism has developed considerably beyond its early racialism. One measure of The Age of Reform’s influence lies in the large literature refuting it.

Hofstadter distributed his satire liberally, but not liberally enough to check the patronizing tone that crept into his style over time. The Beats, he wrote in 1962, “have produced very little good writing. Their most distinctive contribution to our culture may in the end be their amusing argot. The movement seems unable to rise above its adolescent inspiration.”

As the center dispersed in the strenuous 1960’s, the absurdities of American politics sprouted new styles of satire and longing. Hofstadter kept his hair short and his bowtie tight. He suffered bouts of “intellectual confusion” (in Mr. Brown’s words), much as Mencken grew disoriented when the fat targets of the 1920’s made way for the realities of the 1930’s.

Soon after he delivered the commencement address at Columbia, Hofstadter abandoned his home in the “Upper West Side Kibbutz” for a quieter spot on the East Side. In the summer of 1970, his three-volume work incomplete, he confided his disappointment in an interview with Newsweek. “I can’t see much that is positive coming out of this period. If I get around to writing a general history of the recent past, I’m going to call the chapter on the 60’s ‘The Age of Rubbish.’” A few months later he died of leukemia, age 54.

John H. Summers teaches intellectual history at Harvard. His biography of C. Wright Mills will be published by Oxford University Press.

Politics Without Politics: Seeing History From the Center