High School in Buffalo, NY
Richard Hofstadter was born in 1916, in Buffalo, New York, to Katherine Hofstadter (née Hill) and Emil Hofstadter. The backgrounds of his two parents -- German Lutheran and Jewish, respectively -- reflect the ethnic composition of the industrial city, which at the time was home to a large population of European immigrants. Because Hofstadter would go on to challenge a nostalgic view of American history that lamented the country's loss of its supposed agrarian and Anglo-Saxon origins, it is worth taking note of the relatively heterogeneous urban setting in which he lived as a child and young adult .
As a young man, Richard, or "Dick," was a fan of the influential writer H.L. Mencken, whose caustic antipathy to rural America and Protestant prudishness set the tone for cultural criticism in the 1920s. Hofstadter's friend and colleague Alfred Kazin recalled, several years after his death, that "Mencken was a favorite resource in his many glooms" . By the age of sixteen, Hofstadter was trying his own hand at satirical social commentary -- inspired, perhaps, by Mencken's example.
The thumbnail image at right displays an excerpt from a short one-act comedy that Hofstadter wrote in 1932, while a high school student. The play, which was performed at Fosdick-Masten Park High School and aired on a Buffalo radio station, tells the story of a snobbish aristocrat, named Lord Eliot, his butler, Jeeves, and a long-lost twin brother who seeks to claim his share of the family inheritance. Although attentive readers might notice a political subtext to the story, much of the humor in the play arises from repeated misunderstandings between Lord Eliot and Jeeves. The butler answers every request from his employer with the phrase, "with or without?," never specifying what he would be serving each item with (or without). In the detail pictured below, Jeeves asks Lord Eliot, who has demanded half of a grapefruit, "which 'awf?" He explains, "There are two 'awfs to a grapefruit, sir, the upper 'awf and the lower 'awf. Some claims the upper 'awf is better, and there is those wo [sic] claim the lower 'awf is much better."
In remembrances of Hofstadter that were compiled after his death, several friends and colleagues mentioned his talent for impersonation. Pearl Bell, the wife of sociologist Daniel Bell, told one interviewer that Hofstadter's ability to mimic other people was “so astonishingly exact, almost as good as what we’d expect of a professional comedian" . While always a serious writer, committed to depth and honesty in his prose, Hofstadter retained a mordant sense of humor that showed well into his career. Kazin describes Hofstadter as "a creature suspended between gloom and fun, between disdain for the expected and mad parody" . He had a rare ability to produce rigorous historical criticism that was entertaining enough to be popular, but, as we shall see, his unflagging irreverence could alienate some readers. The pride that he took in his role as a stolid destroyer of myths often led him to skirt the line separating iconoclasm from condescension.