Remembering Hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter died of leukemia on October 24, 1970. He was 54 years old. In the weeks that followed, a flood of obituaries appeared in newspapers and journals across the United States. His widow, Beatrice, received hundreds of condolence letters from friends, colleagues, admiring readers, and students past and present. At Columbia University, where Hofstadter had taught for more than twenty years, a memorial service was held in his honor; C. Vann Woodward, his longtime friend and colleague, delivered the eulogy.

"American Historians Shift Emphasis To Conflict"

A January 1969 article in The New York Times, entitled "American Historians Shift Emphasis To Conflict," that discusses the major historiographic shifts that were underway in the final years of Hofstadter's life.

Curriculum vitae, Spring 1970

Hofstadter's curriculum vitae, drafted in 1970 shortly before his death, testifies to a very prolific career.

The materials featured in this chapter ("The Devitalized Center") have both illustrated the turbulence of the 1960s and documented the ways in which Hofstadter responded to it. As we have seen, two principal events - the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, and the Columbia crisis of 1968 - shook him from his resignation (if not exactly complacency), and compelled him to make affirmative commitments of an altogether different sort from those that had inspired his work of the 1930s and 1940s.

Hofstadter had long opposed moralism in politics. With his caustic portraits of inept and kleptocratic leaders in The American Political Tradition, for instance, he threw cold water on sentimental notions of a usable past, and he delighted in mocking the pathos of crusaders like William Jennings Bryan. By the late 1960s, he had become alarmed that "over-principled men" and earnest zealots on both the left and the right might abandon a kind of political tradition, sustained by compromise, that he now took it upon himself to defend. In a paradox that he would certainly appreciate, were he somehow able to contemplate it from some historical distance, Hofstadter, late in his life, suddenly transformed into a defender of the liberal center just at the moment that a more dynamic and less consensual political climate was emerging.

Seen in retrospect, his advocacy for moderation in a time of extremism and division takes on a pathos of its own. His 1969 book, The Idea of A Party System, for instance, was later criticized for being precisely the kind of celebration of the genius of the nation's political culture and institutions that "consensus historians," like Daniel Boorstin, had written in the 1950s [139]. The Hofstadter of the late 1960s was just as sharp as ever, though, and he was still an ironist, but his irony was no longer that of a chastened radical who critiqued the status quo (if only implicitly in the service of an unnamed just alternative). Moreover, the function of his irony had shifted: as Daniel Walker Howe and Peter Finn write, "realism" and flexibility had become ends-in-themselves that were severed from any critical purpose [140].

At the same time, Hofstadter's reluctance to engage politically, to mobilize the intellect in the service of a cause or a movement, appeared precious and dated as a new style of history-writing came roaring into fashion. This is how Hofstadter described his own feelings about political commitment in a letter to Christopher Lasch from 1964:

you are, of course, right that what I find really interesting abt non-ideological politics is watching and studying it, in yr words, not taking part. But I have quite the same interest in ideological positions too--I like to study the dynamics of pol. ideas, as I do even of relatively low-grade pol. institutions. But just as I don't get enlisted in practical politics, so also I don't get enlisted in the ideologies--indeed, at times I feel even more detached from them. For example, I care more to see Goldwater defeated than I ever have been able to care just how accurate the Marxian approach to social class is. Etc., etc... [141].

 Such antipathy towards participation, such fierce devotion to one's own independence, are concerns that the rising generation of historians did not share. Hofstadter, who was once aptly described as a "historian for the alienated, self-critical individual," typifies a sensibility and an outlook that jarred with those of the New Left [142]. In Lasch's description, the new social historians of the 1960s and 1970s demanded "that historians cultivate an 'activist outlook' and that history be subordinated to the needs of the 'movement'" [143].

And why not? Hofstadter, as we have seen in this exhibition, consistently wrote historical narratives in response to the challenges and controversies of the present. By the end of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, the movement for African-American civil rights, and a wave of nascent social movements - of women, migrant farm workers, prisoners, psychiatric patients, indigenous peoples - had thrown new actors onto the national stage. In the decade following Hofstadter's death, further political and cultural ferment would bring altogether new subjects to the fore: gays and lesbians, the environment, and much else. The scripts for those actors would need to be written, and young historians would have find the materials - the instances of oppression and of conflict - that lay buried in the past, largely undisturbed by their elders. Increasingly, Hofstadter's generation's attention to the deeds and words of white, male property owners seemed to reflect an exhausted paradigm; indeed, anyone wishing to write such history today would risk appearing more than a tad out of touch. Nonetheless, Hofstadter's works, some of which are now three quarters of a century old, continue to serve as a resource for scholars and for citizens in general. Whatever changes occur in the nation's future, it is difficult to imagine that his works will ever cease to inspire the passionate argument and critical reflection that are necessary to the preservation of a democratic culture.

The next and final section of this exhibition explores Hofstadter's legacy as a historian by reflecting on the relevance of his body of work to Americans who are reading him today, almost fifty years after his death.