April 9, 2008


The Age of American Unreason (PAUL GOTTFRIED, April 9, 2008, NY Sun)

A measure of the glowing success of American historian and Columbia University professor Richard Hofstadter (1916–1970), beyond the numerous editions of his books, is the veneration that came from the New York Times, the New Republic, and the Chronicle of Higher Education when my colleague David Brown published a biography of Hofstadter two years ago. Although the biography was far from uncritical, readers and reviewers mostly took the opportunity to celebrate Hofstadter's "liberal" achievement. Only two reviews known to me — one my own in the American Conservative and the other by Wilfred McClay in the Wall Street Journal — acknowledged that the biography offered harsh judgments as well as kind ones about its "renowned" subject. The consensus among his admirers was that Hofstadter had been more than simply a productive writer who had trained a future generation of well-placed establishment historians: He had, they suggested, pointed out the past failings of American society, a society whose politics had been polluted by rural populists and other alleged yahoos.

Hofstadter had gone after those yahoos, albeit not for the first time, when he wrote "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" (1963). Like "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" published one year later, "Anti-Intellectualism" played up the demagogic political streak in American history, which Hofstadter illustrated with references to Joe McCarthy and the American Right. This work recycled some of Hofstadter's earlier work on the populists and the later Progressives: "Anti-Intellectualism" and "The Age of Reform" (1955), which both earned Pulitzer Prizes, claimed to uncover the right-wing, anti-Semitic, and racist strains of the American political tradition, even in that tradition's supposed reform movements. In "The Age of Reform," Hofstadter observes that American populism was as much about bigotry as the quest for economic justice; the author asserts, although his arguments are far from conclusive, that "a full history of modern anti-Semitism in the United States would reveal its substantial Populist lineage." Hofstadter also draws a highly impressionistic, controversial parallel between the murals of the American artist of the frontier Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) and Italian fascist iconography; this comparison was apparently drawn from an equally impressionistic essay by the Marxist art historian Meyer Shapiro, published in Partisan Review in 1937.

In "Anti-Intellectualism," the leitmotif becomes "nativism," and although Hofstadter takes to task some cultural and educational practices that may deserve to be criticized, such as vocational training as the basis for American education, the nativist charge here is heavily overworked. A more scrupulous study might have explored a genuinely nativist strain in American social history, but in Hofstadter's work the concept is not so much an instrument of analysis as a term of abuse. It is simply applied to a wide variety of things that Hofstadter objected to, including such sources of offense as blue-collar values, what Hofstadter considered the neo-populism of democratic reformers in the 1950s, and Progressive education. In his idiosyncratic view, the educational nostrums of John Dewey became "nativist" by virtue of supposedly reflecting an old-fashioned American repugnance for real learning.

The one thing that makes Anti-Intellectualism worth reading is that it is the very traits of American society that he whines about throughout the book that preserved us from the disastrous course that Europe followed into rationalism/secularism/Darwinism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 9, 2008 8:35 AM

This essay is factually incorrect. Hofstadter's work on the right is widely derided on the left, by, among others, me.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at April 9, 2008 10:15 AM

It was this book that lead me to BroJudd. I was looking for a book review and the rest, as they say, is history (or the end of it).

Posted by: Bartman at April 9, 2008 10:35 AM

Yes, Rick, but your lot hate Hofstadter and company for the way they diminished the historical American Left by describing the American consensus. Just as you hate Bill Clinton for embracing that conservative consensus.

Posted by: oj at April 9, 2008 11:55 AM

The Blue Planet is exceptional. Follow that up with your favorite National Geographic/Nature episodes and your set. Especially like the NG episode called "The Photographers"

Posted by: Reg Jones at April 9, 2008 12:10 PM

And Hofstadter's paper on The Paranoid Style in American Politics is still relevant, and Hofstadter did note that while recent examples he used were on the right, the left was not immune from this style.

Dr. Sanity has a nice couple of posts on it.

Posted by: Mikey at April 9, 2008 4:39 PM