The Age of Rubbish
As we have seen, Richard Hofstadter had long been engaged in an ongoing argument with the generation of scholars preceding him, especially the historians Charles A. Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Vernon L. Parrington. Always lurking in the background of his writings, that argument at long last rose to the surface and became a topic in its own right in 1968, with the publication of The Progressive Historians.
For decades, Hofstadter had poked holes in these writers' simplistic explanations of historical change and their rationalistic models of political behavior. Above all else, he had taken issue with their tendency to view American history through the lens of economic and social conflict, and responded by emphasizing consensus to such an extent that he had once been identified as part of a "cult of consensus" . Unlike other "consensus historians," such as Daniel Boorstin, Hofstadter had never celebrated consensus in American politics, and by the late 1960s he had begun to qualify his earlier interpretative bias. In the contentious air of that decade, historians were once again far more likely to emphasize conflict, but Beard, Turner, and Parrington remained hopelessly out of favor. So why did Hofstadter choose to write a book about them at that moment?
Hofstadter's reflections on the long-surpassed work of the progressive historians came just as a new wave of revisionists, many of them identified with the New Left, were challenging the interpretations of Hofstadter and his generation of scholars. We might therefore speculate that he wrote the book, somewhat poignantly, out of concern for his legacy. In a review of The Progressive Historians, David M. Potter mentions that Hofstadter treats his forebears with a "largeness of mind and...emotional sympathy for points of view which he reluctantly regards as rationally fallacious" . Perhaps he was modeling, for a younger generation, how to criticize the ideas of writers whose heyday has long passed without treating them as entirely disposable. Potter articulated the broader political significance of this point in the context a moment in which respectful disagreement had become rare: "How does a society handle the kind of controversy which is necessary to all reform and social change," he wrote, "without experiencing a measure of disruption that injures or even destroys the society itself? How can we have consensus without repression or controversy without disruption?" .
These questions took on particular urgency following the climactic events of the spring of 1968, which left Hofstadter pessimistic about the health of American democracy and concerned for the future of the university as a space for respectful debate. At Columbia, the bitterness that lingered in the aftermath of clashes between students and administrators made the possibility of reconciliation ever more remote. Fortunately, Hofstadter was able to get a break from New York during the summer of 1968, as he and his family made their usual exodus to their second home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Even though he could temporarily escape the acrimony at Columbia, the summer would not bring any respite from the violence plaguing the country: in June, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated; in August, Chicago police brutally assaulted protesters and bystanders outside of the Democratic National Convention; and all the while, the American government continued to escalate its military involvement in Vietnam.
Under the strain of these events, the adversarial dynamics on campuses across the country grew more intense. At Columbia, students continued to disrupt lectures and to antagonize faculty members. Hofstadter's correspondence from this time suggests the emotional toll that this took on him: in a somewhat melodramatic note, for instance, from October of 1968, he abruptly declares that he plans to withdraw from the faculty of Columbia College. He did not, however, follow through on this suggestion, and it is unclear that this letter was ever sent.
Although discouraged, Hofstadter worked to achieve some reforms, for example, calling on Columbia's administration to expand the decision-making powers of students and faculty, and pressing for changes to the school's controversial ROTC program (see the letter above, at right). At the same time, he set to work on a number of new projects that mark an altogether different phase in his career.
In his final few years, Hofstadter continued to write and lecture on a variety of topics and to address his thinking to a broad audience. The remarkably long list of publications that he produced between 1968 and his death, in October 1970, is no less versatile than his overall oeuvre. With the historian Clarence L. Ver Steeg, he collaborated on a new American history textbook, A People and a Nation, which was published in 1971. He also edited the second of two volumes in a documentary history of political thought entitled Great Issues in American History.
Hofstadter also weighed in on contemporary debates in public fora right up until his death. In the summer of 1970, he participated in a Newsweek symposium on the "American crisis," along with five other historians. His remarks appeared under the title "the Age of Rubbish," which was at once a humorous allusion to what is perhaps his most famous book, The Age of Reform, and a succinct statement of his views on the condition of American politics and society. In the interview, Hofstader worries that young people are responding to their sense of alienation by investing politics with a surfeit of meaning, even spirituality. Under the weight of this moral and existential baggage, political life has been polarized and fragmented: Hofstadter remarks that "[a]lmost the entire intellectual community is lost in dissent." Meanwhile, mainstream Americans resent the students for their condescending moralism, their self-indulgent hostility to the middle-class work ethic, and their rage at the institutions (such as universities) that secure their own privileges. He therefore warns -- with striking prescience -- of the fearful possibility of a strong right-wing reaction. Finally, he ends on a sour note, "If I get around to writing a general history of the recent past, I'm going to call the chapter on the '60s 'The Age of Rubbish.' I think we'll be lucky," he added, "to get out of this situation without further polarization and a strong right-wing reaction... I have no doubt that it's a bad time, and it's not over yet" .
Hofstadter's next and last magazine article, "America As A Gun Culture," appeared in the October 1970 issue of The American Heritage. Disturbed by the response of American voters and politicians to the high-profile and often politically motivated gun violence of the previous decade, he turned to history to demonstrate the absence of any social or legal justification for individual gun rights. Hofstadter also pointed out the irrationality of the country's response to gun violence: rather than demanding sensible gun control reforms, citizens had largely insisted on further arming themselves. The article concluded with a question which, pathetically, remains unanswered almost fifty years later: "One must wonder how grave a domestic gun catastrophe would have to be in order to persuade us [to pass gun control measures]. How far must things go?" .
"America As A Gun Culture" once again made Hofstadter a magnet for right-wing rage. Letters poured in from angry readers who regarded his opposition to "gun rights" as un-American, and even pro-Communist. Nine of these letters are available to read by clicking this link. Hofstadter himself never saw these letters, as he died the same month that his article was published.
Hofstadter had originally commented on the nation's "feeble and outmoded gun control laws" in his moving introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, a volume that he co-edited with one of his graduate students, Mike Wallace . "Reflections on American Violence" was a re-worked version of a lecture that Hofstadter had delivered on several occasions in late 1968, following the wave of unrest on college campuses and in the nation at large. Included here is a link to a recording of Hofstadter's remarks at the University of California-Los Angeles, on November 8, 1968. And, pictured at right is the program for a lecture, given on November 21, 1968, at Canisius College, in his hometown of Buffalo, New York.
In the essay, Hofstadter discusses the nature of violence in American society, noting that while the United States is not necessarily more violent than any other country, the considerable amount of violence inflicted on and by its people stands in "rather abrupt contrast with [their] pretensions to singular national virtue" . For the most part, American violence is carried out by citizens against other citizens; it is not insurrectionary. Despite the high incidence of violent industrial conflict, moreover, the country lacks militant class-consciousness. Hofstadter thus returns to an old theme: the absence of a revolutionary tradition in the United States.
Still, the essay explodes any simplistic characterization of Hofstadter as a "consensus historian." It features one of his very few discussions of the significant role of racism, and in particular of white supremacist violence, in American history. His remarks also once again reflect a concern, first expressed in The Paranoid Style and intensified after the Columbia crisis of 1968, that extremism and fragmentation - not stifling consensus - pose severe threats to democracy. As in his 1968 commencement speech, he stresses the need for patience, persuasion, and an ethic of "pragmatic wisdom" in response to the New Left, whose shortsighted mystique of violence, he suggests, amounts to self-expression rather than politics . The radicals' "apocalyptic" thinking, and their self-defeating tactic of courting state violence for dramatic effect, reveal a desire to be ineffective, to moralize rather than to achieve meaningful political change .
Because the New Left is self-marginalizing, Hofstadter is less concerned that it will carry out truly heinous violent acts than he is fearful that it will spur a violent backlash from the Right. He points to the rise of George Wallace to national prominence, for instance, as an ominous sign of "the increasing polarization of the society," a process hastened by left-wing maximalism . And again, he focuses on the American fascination with guns, warning of the "dangerous potential" in the new culture of vigilantism and armed self-protection among "law-and-order" conservatives . In their apocalyptic readings of American politics and their unrelenting hostility to the federal government, they mirror the worst aspects of the New Left, but where the young radicals merely fantasize about violence for its symbolic power, they have the firepower and they fully intend to use it.
Because "Reflections on American Violence" is one of the last essays that Hofstadter ever wrote, all of this would seem to suggest that he had a very grim perspective on the condition of American politics at the time of his death. That impression is, perhaps, largely accurate. Still, he was determined not to fall prey to the same apocalyptic frame of mind that afflicted so many American citizens, and which prevented them from respecting their fellow citizens and recognizing the legitimacy of any authority. Hofstadter concluded on as high a note as he could muster: "When one considers American history as a whole, it is hard to think of any very long period in which it could be said that the country has been consistently well-governed. And yet its political system is, on the whole, a resilient and well-seasoned one, and on the strength of its history one must assume that it can summon enough talent and good will to cope with its afflictions. To cope with them--but not, I think, to master them in any thoroughly decisive or admirable fashion. The nation seems to slouch onward into its uncertain future like some huge inarticulate beast, too much attainted by wounds and ailments to be robust, but too strong and resourceful to succumb" .
In his last few years, Hofstadter also somehow found time to write more specialized academic works. Among these is The Idea of A Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840, which was published in 1969. As its title suggests, the book examines the advent of the concept of a legitimate opposition in order to explain how the peaceful transfer of power between political parties became a cornerstone of American government. Once again, Hofstadter looked to history for clarity and understanding in the present: respectful disagreement and legitimate authority were, he believed, problems of the highest order in the late 1960s. Although by far his driest book, The Idea of A Party System earned Hofstadter a Van Am Award from Columbia University. In May of 1970, despite being very sick and only months away from his death, he delivered a poignant acceptance speech, the full text of which appears here.
Even as he suffered from leukemia over the course of 1969 and into 1970, Hofstadter set to work on an ambitious new multi-volume history of the United States. An unfinished section of the first volume was published posthumously, in 1971, under the title America at 1750: A Social Portrait. In contrast to nearly all of his prior work, here he principally examined the substance of everyday life for ordinary Americans rather than the biographies of political elites and the ideas of intellectuals. While we cannot know what directions Hofstadter's work would have taken had he continued to live past 1970, America at 1750 suggests that, far from resting on his laurels, he would have continued to respond enthusiastically and creatively to new scholarly challenges and debates.