New York City: Politics and Culture, 1936-1939

Felice Swados Writing Novel

"Felice Swados Writing Novel," 1940. Oil on canvas by Margaret LeFranc.

Felice Swados, Reform School Girl

1948 cover illustration for Felice Swados's novel Reform School Girl. The book was originally published in 1941 under the title "House of Fury."

Having completed his studies in Buffalo in the spring of 1936, Hofstadter moved to New York City that fall. He and Felice Swados, now married, took an apartment on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. Even as he suffered through his first year of law school, the two of them became immersed in the cosmopolitan milieu of the so-called New York Intellectuals, whose fluency in psychoanalysis, avant-garde culture, modernist literature, and political radicalism provided a stark contrast with the staid environment of provincial Buffalo [14]. In a sign of their deepening commitment to the Left, both became involved in the Young Communist League. Swados submitted poems to the Communist literary journal New Masses and worked as a labor organizer, while Hofstadter developed close friendships with Marxist writers, including the brilliant literary critic Alfred Kazin [15]. 

In his 1978 memoir, New York Jew, Kazin shares his vivid recollections of Hofstadter and Swados, commenting that they frequently held potluck dinners for "sailors and other proletarian types in Brooklyn Heights" [16]. Felice he remembers as strong-willed and dogmatic, "large, assured, eager, scathing yet flirtatious... while she patiently explained the laws of social development underlying famous novels and systems of philosophy" [17]. Hofstadter, meanwhile, emerges as a far more guarded personality, and much more sympathetic: "He was a derisive critic and parodist of every American Utopia and its wild prophets, a natural oppositionist to fashion and its satirist, a creature suspended between gloom and fun, between disdain for the expected and mad parody. He was filled with divided loyalties and powerfully disturbed emotions that never showed. The crazily promising yet undependable American scene gripped him absolutely" [18].

"The Need of New Values"

Hofstadter's review of Georgia Harkness, "The Recovery of Ideals," The New York Herald Tribune, 1937.

"A Medieval Spirit in the Modern World"

Hofstadter's review of Vida Dutton Scudder, On Journey, 1937.

By the spring of 1937, Hofstadter had abandoned law school and begun a master's degree in history at Columbia University. At the same time, he wrote book reviews for The New York Herald Tribune, and worked to hone his writing and find an authorial voice. At left are two reviews that he wrote about contemporary works of philosophy. Hofstadter began his undergraduate career as a student of philosophy before moving on to history, but even if, as he would later assert, he "had no gifts in the field," the subject would continue to interest him throughout his career [19]. 

For the moment, however, politics remained his central preoccupation. Hofstadter and his wife joined the Communist Party in 1938. At the time, he wrote to his brother-in-law, the leftist writer Harvey Swados, "My fundamental reason for joining is that I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it... The party is making a very profound contribution to the radicalization of the American people. Whether it is losing its revolutionary character I don't know. Even if it is, I prefer to go along with it now. If a new party is someday needed to complete the job of pushing capitalism over I think I will be ready join it [sic]. I postpone that question for the future" [20]. 

Hofstadter made this decision not lightly, but rather, "with a sense of obligation" above all else [21]. His letters indicate that he had grave concerns and few illusions - and with ample justification. During the previous years, Joseph Stalin, the titular leader of the global communist movement, had liquidated all political opposition within Russia. In a set of highly scripted show trials, he and his loyalists sentenced leading party members to be imprisoned and executed. These troubling events seemed to confirm the suspicion, held by many on the Left, that the Communist Party was a cult of personality set up around Stalin, a tightly controlled and highly disciplined organization that permitted little to no intellectual independence. Writing to Harvey Swados in 1938 about his observations of a Party meeting at Columbia University, Hofstadter echoed this view: "I was appalled at their attitude of mind. Which is like this: (If) I doubt the correctness of the party line, collective security, the Moscow trials, (or anything else): Therefore, my education is deficient and I have to go down to the section and talk to somebody who will straighten this out for me, and improve me... The underlying assumption, of course, is that the party can't be wrong. This from intellectuals" [22].

Though uneasy and ambivalent about the Communist Party, Hofstadter had nonetheless committed to it. Still in his early twenties and not yet a professional scholar, he threw in his lot with the working class and the social revolution that would overthrow a crumbling and unjust economic order. This formative moment in Hofstadter's intellectual biography casts his later career in an interesting light, as he would go on to express grave concern about the dangers of mass politics and the paradoxes of social action.