Anti-Intellectualism In American Life (1963)


Composition notebook containing notes for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Different moments that are chronicled in this exhibition point up the tensions and ambiguities that characterize the role of the intellectual in a democratic society. For instance, is the American intellectual ultimately responsible to the public, or to the freedom of the intellect itself? Does the "engaged intellectual" risk sacrificing their independence? Conversely, does distance from "the people" necessarily imply a haughty - and anti-democratic - refusal to participate in the civic life of the community and the nation? Hofstadter, as we have seen, willingly participated in the radical social movements of the 1930s, but by the middle of the 1950s he had come to fear the "dark side" of mass politics -- especially the dangerous hostility towards intellectuals that often accompanied it. He had never regarded the average citizen with disdain; indeed, as this exhibition demonstrates, he was quite willing to intervene in public debate and to engage a broad audience. Hofstadter was nonetheless concerned with the degradation of the public sphere and with the growing contempt for reasoned debate during the McCarthy years. It is clear in hindsight that when he completed his 1963 work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, an ambitious study of the (often tenuous) social position of American intellectuals, the disconcerting experiences of the previous decade greatly informed it.

Authors Guild membership card, 1966

Hofstadter's Authors Guild membership card, 1966.

Current Biographyprofile, page one

Profile of Richard Hofstadter in Current Biography, October 1956.

The Genteel Reformers

"Idealists and Professors and Sore-heads," an article by Richard Hofstadter that appeared in Columbia University Forum, Spring 1962.

Hofstadter began by acknowledging that the intellectuals in midcentury American society enjoyed an unprecedented level of privilege and power. No longer confined to the university lecture hall or the bohemian fringe, academicians were now enmeshed in the workings of big business, military research, and government policy. (Perhaps nothing symbolized this more than the 1961 appointment of Hofstadter's colleague, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as Special Assistant and adviser to President John F. Kennedy). Paradoxically, Hofstadter argued, that coveted status was the very source of the intellectuals' vulnerability: as their influence grew, so did popular resentment of "the experts." Demagogues, like the Republican Senator Joe McCarthy, could easily use this to their advantage, "arousing the fear of subversion" with an appeal that blended anti-elitism with widespread anxieties relating to ethnic difference and outside influence over domestic affairs [103].

Hofstadter's narrative retraced some of the ground covered in The Age of Reform, this time linking the agrarian anti-intellectualism of earlier American history to the right-wing populism of the 1950s. But Hofstadter did not only focus on the anti-intellectualism of the Right. He dipped into his own past, albeit obliquely, with an examination of the ways in which the left-wing movements of the early twentieth century had exploited the guilt of sympathetic intellectuals, forced them to "declass themselves" and to abandon their "bourgeois" interests in literary humanism in deference to the crude ethic of "proletarianism" [104].

Hofstadter's book concludes with a somewhat controversial chapter, entitled "The Intellectual: Alienation and Conformity," which takes aim at recent critics on the Left. In it, he takes issue with writers like the socialist editor and essayist Irving Howe, the novelist Norman Mailer, and the (then recently deceased) sociologist C. Wright Mills for their stubborn and quixotic repudiation of American culture. All had correctly recognized the incorporation of intellectuals into the mainstream of American society, Hofstadter insists, but they were wrong to believe that incorporation necessarily implies a loss of critical perspective. In their dogmatic resistance to the institutionalization of intellect, moreover, they had become a "cult of alienation," elevating their extreme aversion to both the masses and the establishment into a prerequisite for political insight and creative self-expression [105]. To make a virtue of withdrawal in this manner, Hofstadter argues, is to oversimplify: the expert-for-hire certainly sacrifices a degree of independence, but his or her access to power often yields critical insights unavailable to the critic. Ultimately, to equate alienation with insight is to consign oneself to permanent irrelevance, to trap oneself in a cul-de-sac of self-imposed exile, all in order to maintain the illusion of moral purity.

Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards

Photograph of Richard Hofstadter with the other recipients of the 1963 Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards. Hofstadter won this award, as well as a second Pulitzer Prize, for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Hofstadter seems to have been peeved by the moralism of these critics much more than he was concerned by their withdrawal from American life. After all, part of his work in the book had been to show that freedom of the intellect depended to a certain degree on independence from social commitments. (In one chapter of Anti-Intellectualism, entitled "The Child and the World," he criticized John Dewey's collectivist theory of progressive education as leaving little room for the individual to develop apart from his or her social group.) 

From one perspective, it makes little sense that Hofstadter concerned himself with the freedom of the intellect at a moment when academics enjoyed enormous prestige, status, and innumerable opportunities. The historian Daniel Boorstin, for instance, pointed out in a critical review of Anti-Intellectualism that "the American intellectual today... belongs everywhere. As never before, he is welcomed in industry and in government" [106]. Embraced by readers across the nation and securely ensconced at one of the world's most prestigious universities, Hofstadter certainly was a privileged member of an elite group, as he himself would have acknowledged. But his point was not simply that intellectuals were in danger of being persecuted; instead, he sought to explore the dilemmas of the individual who pursues the life of the mind in a culture overwhelmingly devoted to practical, business-oriented pursuits. From that broader perspective, his concerns spoke, and continue to speak, to an enduring tension in American life.

Statement on Loyalty Oaths

A letter from Hofstadter declaring his opposition to student loyalty oaths, 1960.


List of Historians Who Marched From Selma to Montgomery, page one

A list of American historians, including Hofstadter, who participated in the historic march for African-American civil rights in Alabama, March 25, 1965. Hofstadter flew to Montgomery, at the end of the march, to support those who had walked the entire way from Selma.

But his critique of the "alienated" intellectuals - and his defense of the establishment intellectuals - came just as new social movements were emerging that would change the terms of the debate altogether. The years following the book's publication saw the stable postwar consensus split apart. In this shifting context, Hofstadter found himself increasingly, and often reluctantly, drawn back into political controversy.

In the years just after the book's publication, an escalation of conflicts both at home and abroad would bring to the fore new questions about the complicity of universities with big business, the military state, and systemic racism. By the late 1960s, radical critics whose influence had been limited - such as Mills, with his dark warnings of a "power elite" - now seemed prescient, for all their apparent Manichaean bluster. As Noam Chomsky made clear in his 1967 essay, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," intellect, during the Cold War, had only enhanced, not restrained, power; while power had corrupted intellect. By then, to many students and young activists, the equation of marginality with insight, which Hofstadter had found so irksome, had the ring of common sense.