Richard Hofstadter (BA ’37) was born 100 years ago this past August, and died 46 years ago. His most successful books were published in the middle of the last century. For your typical historian, that would mean the majority of us would have no idea who he was, let alone what he wrote about. That’s not the case with Richard Hofstadter.
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Hofstadter’s words were popping up everywhere. He was invoked by The New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, among others, to help readers grapple with the bizarre twists and turns of the electoral season. His ideas also have been applied to such trending topics as anti-vaxxers, the growing economic divide and the meaning of “progressivism.” Excerpts from his famous essay on political paranoia figured in a 2015 New York theatre piece probing conspiracy theories.
When Hofstadter died of leukemia in 1970, The Times of London described him as “one of the most eloquent and influential historians writing in the English language.” Says Victoria Wolcott, UB professor and chair of history, “He was a true public intellectual, widely read outside academic circles and much admired for his lucid and elegant writing.” His skillful prose undoubtedly had much to do with the success of his 13 books (several of which became best-sellers, and two of which won the Pulitzer Prize), but perhaps even more important than his literary dexterity were his penetrating and enduring insights into the American political mind.
Among the many subjects Hofstadter wrote about were the educational system, academic freedom and Social Darwinism, along with huge swaths of American history. He looked at why Americans sometimes view the life of the mind with suspicion, and what historical antecedents predicted the contemporary mindset, drawing on philosophy, sociology, literary criticism and psychology to deepen our understanding of who we are as a people, and why we behave the way we do. Reading his tome “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1964, it is nothing short of astonishing how passage after passage jumps off the page for its uncanny pertinence to today. Only after the 400th page does one find one or two dated references, and remember that the book was first published in 1963.
The son of an immigrant furrier and his wife, who died when Richard was only ten, Hofstadter graduated from Buffalo’s Fosdick-Masten High School (today’s City Honors) in 1933. He enrolled in UB that fall on a scholarship, where he studied history and philosophy, quickly revealing his intellectual prowess. He completed his degree in just three years, graduating summa cum laude in philosophy, and magna cum laude in history and government, in February 1937.
Hofstadter nourished his intellect at UB studying under provocative scholars like Julius Pratt. In her book “Radical Beginnings: Richard Hofstadter in the 1930s,” Susan Stout Baker contends that Pratt gave Hofstadter “encouragement and stimulation in the area of history and served as a model for the detached and coolly objective scholar.” Baker also gives credit to Chancellor Samuel Capen’s unconditional support for academic freedom. “By assuming a determined position in favor of academic freedom at all costs,” Baker writes, “[Capen] gave those on the Left the intellectual breathing space to develop and articulate their views.”
But Hofstadter’s UB experience wasn’t all classroom learning. As the country reeled from the Depression, and the situation in Europe grew more and more ominous, Hofstadter became increasingly involved in left-wing political advocacy (he briefly joined the Communist Party in 1938, but soon quit). In 1935, he wrote a letter to the editor of a UB student publication criticizing an anonymous article the paper had published satirizing those on relief, and offering his own sardonic take on “political illiteracy” among his fellow students. “Why not a satire on the superficial American college student?” Hofstadter asked pointedly. He was also active in the National Student League and served on a publicity committee for a planned “student strike for peace.”
Hofstadter met his first wife at UB. Felice Swados Hofstadter (BA ’35), a Buffalo native, was herself a brilliant student and ardent political activist who earned an MA at Smith, wrote a novel and worked for Time magazine before dying of cancer in 1945 at age 29. The couple married in 1936, while Hofstadter was still an undergrad, and had a son, Dan, just two years before Felice’s death. Hofstadter remarried in 1947 to Beatrice Kevitt, another Buffalo native. They had a daughter, Sarah, in 1952, and though not a UB grad herself, Beatrice would later make significant donations to the university of Hofstadter’s papers, some family photos and books from his private library. (See "An Unexpected Gift").
Upon graduating, Hofstadter briefly enrolled in law school (his uncle was a State Supreme Court justice and the family had advised him to emulate the elder Hofstadter’s career), but then went on to obtain a master’s and PhD in history at Columbia University. After a brief tenure at the University of Maryland, he returned to Columbia, where he taught from 1946 until the end of his life, with visiting posts at Princeton, the University of Cambridge and various other prestigious institutions.
A major reason for Hofstadter’s continuing importance lies in the range of topics he addressed in his books, essays and lectures—subjects in American life that remain impervious to easy solutions or facile explanations. Consider some of his best-known works: the aforementioned “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”; “The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays”; and “The Age of the Reform,” which captured the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1956. “His great skill was in unravelling the skeins that tie the present to the past, that make history relevant to our time,” reads the tribute entered into The Congressional Record a few weeks after Hofstadter’s death at 54. Following are just a few of the topics he examined, often devising breathtakingly original concepts for how we might better understand and interpret American history.
Journalists far and wide have turned to “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1964, to help explain recent phenomena in American politics—the rise of the Tea Party, 9/11 conspiracy theories and, most recently, Donald Trump.
Conor Lynch of Salon, for example, set up his readers with an opening quote from an unnamed professor in a July 7 essay: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have demonstrated in the Trump movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.” Lynch soon revealed that the quote, though edited to substitute Trump for Barry Goldwater (the 1964 Republican nominee for president), came from Hofstadter’s essay, written when Trump had just graduated from high school.
In describing “paranoia,” Hofstadter made it clear he wasn’t speaking in clinical terms, but rather sought to address “a style of mind.” “No other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind,” he wrote. He vividly described incidents and personalities in U.S. and European history displaying this behavior, among them: a Jesuit priest who saw villainous forces behind the French Revolution, 19th-century U.S. rabble-rousers who voiced their hostility toward Masons in apocalyptic terms and Joseph McCarthy’s Senate hearings of the early 1950s.
If conflicting parties are unaccustomed to compromise and feeding on paranoia to begin with, Hofstadter pointed out, reconciliation is unlikely. The conflict is exacerbated when people on either side believe they can’t make themselves heard in the political arena. In this way, as Hofstadter described the process, the initial belief among disaffected individuals that political power is sinister and conspiratorial in nature only becomes more entrenched in their minds.
In “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” Hofstadter examined which long-established factors have shaped a resistance to the life of the mind in U.S. culture, concluding that anti-intellectualism “is founded in the democratic institutions and the egalitarian sentiments of this country.”
Leaders of the early republic, he explained, were from a patrician and learned class and largely respected as an intellectual elite. But after about 1890, intellectuals acquired a more conflicted identity as they began to uphold popular values that opposed special interests. By the 20th century, the country’s intellectuals found themselves in a true conundrum. “They have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture that society constantly produces,” Hofstadter wrote. His observation rings painfully true today when considering the mistrust and derision with which intellectuals and their viewpoints are treated by many of those who advocate for a particular cause or ideology.
Hofstadter’s writings on violence in America make for compelling reading. In 1970, the year of his death, he and Michael Wallace published a collection of essays on the many forms of violence—political, economic, racial, religious, police, personal and terroristic—prevalent throughout U.S. history. In reflections opening the book, Hofstadter wrote: “What is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast with our pretensions to singular national virtue.”
Hofstadter cited the “ethnic-religious or racial antagonisms” behind riots in U.S. history, and in comments that could be from a contemporary debate on the proliferation of guns vs. Second Amendment rights, he spoke harshly of the nation’s longstanding gun culture. “The notion that the citizen needs a gun to protect himself, a notion now nourished by a gun lobby which is as powerful as it is indifferent to the public safety, is still very widely and intensely felt in the United States.” As with many of Hofstadter’s topics, one can’t help but wonder what he would have to say today, in an America where gun-related deaths have become lamentably routine.
Ann Whitcher Gentzke is the editor of At Buffalo.
Wanting to ensure a presence for her husband’s legacy in his native Buffalo, Beatrice Hofstadter White (1922-2012) made two remarkable donations to UB.
First, in 2009, came a collection of books from Hofstadter’s working library. Rather than rely on shipping agencies, White had a private driver transport the books from her home in Connecticut. This unanticipated gift encompassed “a large number of books belonging to Hofstadter; many contained marginalia in his hand,” recalls retired archivist John Edens. The following year, White donated a small but significant collection that includes family photos (see inset above of Hofstadter at two) and various correspondence, notes and records. White’s gift augmented an existing collection, which was begun in 1964 when Hofstadter, offered a duplicate copy of the uncorrected manuscript of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” instructed his British publisher to donate it to UB instead.
A scholar and writer in her own right, White worked with her husband on “Great Issues in American History, From Reconstruction to the Present.” She also had the rare experience of being married to two Pulitzer Prize-winning historians. Several years after Hofstadter’s death, she wed Theodore H. White, who had won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for “The Making of the President 1960.” She went on to edit four of his books.
Today, White’s notes describing and enumerating the Hofstadter materials in the UB Archives add great value to her husband’s legacy—and to her own.