An Intellectual and His Public

Current Biographyprofile photograph

Portrait of Hofstadter in Current Biography, 1956.

Das Land Lincolns:Cover

Lecture for German radio, 1959.

By the late 1950s, Richard Hofstadter's reputation was well established among the most esteemed historians in the United States. He had written several best-selling books, one of which had earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Unsurprisingly, as his professional accolades increased, so did publishing contracts, requests for speaking engagements, and invitations to contribute to various public fora. He had, in other words, become a public intellectual whose ideas held great value for large numbers of people. Although in general a very private person, Hofstadter consistently responded to these requests for his professional expertise.

As a university professor, Hofstadter worked on academic articles and book projects while advising graduate students, teaching lecture courses and seminars, and, to a limited extent, participating in the administration of his department. But his contributions as a scholar went well beyond this, as he often intervened in the public discourse -- writing, for instance, countless op-eds and articles for popular journals, appearing on various radio programs (see below), lecturing before audiences all over the world, and collaborating on textbooks, edited volumes of primary source documents, and other projects that brought scholarly debates into the minds of lay readers and students everywhere. 

How did he manage to balance all of these activities? In an interview recorded after his death, his colleague Walter Metzger recalled: "The speed with which Dick worked was one of his wonders. He… set a standard that one could hardly think ordinary mortals could live up to. He wrote in bursts, under very adverse conditions, incidentally, in a room that was part of the living room, a kind of fenced off area. He never took a note. He would mark with little bits of paper parts of books that he would want to refer to. He had an extraordinary memory, and a synthetic capacity that allowed him to absorb and integrate disparate materials. He was his own card file.” [100]

Recording of Hofstadter discussing a painting, which he had recently acquired, by the American landscape artist Thomas Cole.

Collected on this page are several examples of Hofstadter's work as a public historian in the 1950s and '60s. Together, these convey the breadth of his interests as a scholar and the seriousness with which he approached the task of engaging a large audience both inside and outside of the academy.

The item at left is a recording of Hofstadter discussing the nineteenth-century American landscape painter Thomas Cole. Unbeknownst to many of his readers, Hofstadter was an avid art enthusiast and collector. Here, on a 1954 radio broadcast entitled "Perspectives in American Art" - a program designed "designed to aid in enjoyment and understanding of American painting and painters" - he describes a late work of Cole's that he and his second wife Beatrice (née Kevitt) had recently acquired [101]. According to Hofstadter, the work, a study in sepia and white for Cole's never-completed series, The Cross and the World, "shows how Romantic allegory may give way to morbidity" [102]. (While an image of this work is not available for viewing, please click here to view two paintings from this series in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art's collections portal.) This is the first time that this recording, now digitized, has been made available to the public. It is one of several items in this exhibition that allow listeners to hear Hofstadter's voice.

The American Republic: illustration from promotional material, page one

Illustration from promotional materials for The American Republic.

The next item, appearing at left, relates to The American Republic, a history textbook that Hofstadter wrote in collaboration with historians Daniel Aaron and William Miller for Prentice Hall publishers. To learn more about the production, contents, and significance of this textbook (the first of two that Hofstadter would write), see this informative essay by art historian Ben Hufbauer.

Finally, included in the image gallery below are program notes and announcements relating to various lectures that Hofstadter delivered between 1955 and 1965. (See the full collection of related documents by clicking here). These documents demonstrate the breadth of subjects that were of interest to him, and they also provide readers with a sense of the variety of venues in which he spoke, from elite academic institutions to small regional colleges to scientific research facilities.