Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography

University of Chicago Press
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Richard Hofstadter (1916-70) was America’s most distinguished historian of the twentieth century. The author of several groundbreaking books, including The American Political Tradition, he was a vigorous champion of the liberal politics that emerged from the New Deal. During his nearly thirty-year career, Hofstadter fought public campaigns against liberalism’s most dynamic opponents, from McCarthy in the 1950s to Barry Goldwater and the Sun Belt conservatives in the 1960s. His opposition to the extreme politics of postwar America—articulated in his books, essays, and public lectures—marked him as one of the nation’s most important and prolific public intellectuals.

In this masterful biography, David Brown explores Hofstadter’s life within the context of the rise and fall of American liberalism. A fierce advocate of academic freedom, racial justice, and political pluralism, Hofstadter charted in his works the changing nature of American society from a provincial Protestant foundation to one based on the values of an urban and multiethnic nation. According to Brown, Hofstadter presciently saw in rural America’s hostility to this cosmopolitanism signs of an anti-intellectualism that he believed was dangerously endemic in a mass democracy.

By the end of a life cut short by leukemia, Hofstadter had won two Pulitzer Prizes, and his books had attracted international attention. Yet the Vietnam years, as Brown shows, culminated in a conservative reaction to his work that is still with us. Whether one agrees with Hofstadter’s critics or with the noted historian John Higham, who insisted that Hofstadter was “the finest and also the most humane intelligence of our generation,” the importance of this seminal thinker cannot be denied. As this fascinating biography ultimately shows, Hofstadter’s observations on the struggle between conservative and liberal America are relevant to our own times, and his legacy challenges us to this day.
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About the author

David S. Brown is associate professor of history at Elizabethtown College.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Sep 15, 2008
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Pages
320
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ISBN
9780226076379
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Language
English
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Genres
Biography & Autobiography / Educators
History / General
History / Historiography
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Captured by History is an autobiography like none other, for few historians have interviewed as many men and women who helped shape the most momentous events of our century than John Toland. Here, for the first time, Toland reveals how he found these key players and how he persuaded them to talk to him. From disgraced Japanese generals to the German doctor who nearly succeeded in assassinating Hitler, Toland's sources are remarkable for what they reveal about their subjects, along with the secrets and stories they would tell no one else.

Toland's unorthodox approach to history came from his early desire to be a playwright. Even before graduating from Williams College during the depths of the Depression, Toland spent his summers hitchhiking and riding the rails as a hobo. He lived and worked with other bindle stiffs, learning their lingo and ways. He served five short jail sentences for riding freights and trespassing. His experiences and the characters he met encouraged Toland to write plays and early novels (unsuccessfully) until 1957, when he published his first book, Ships in the Sky.

His work in the next four decades was nothing short of extraordinary, for Toland found that he saw history as a play, with narrative structure and drama, not as a dry series of dates and names. The result was a series of landmark works such as Infamy; The Rising Sun, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1970 and reflected his ability, with the help of his Japanese wife, to open doors normally closed to Westerners in Japan; In Mortal Combat; The Last 100 Days; and his best-selling biography of Adolf Hitler.

Captured by History is not only the summation of a lifetime of groundbreaking works, but the story of a man who through his historical investigations became a witness to many of the most catastrophic events of the twentieth century. A self-effacing man in person, Toland nonetheless comes across as having had a life as fascinating as the lives of the many historical figures he has interviewed. Written by one of our last witnesses to the terrible and deracinating conflicts that split the world asunder at mid-century, Captured by History is an astonishing personal story of a hugely inquisitive man who became a historian not by accident or design, but by fate; a man who succeeded in chronicling the most tumultuous events of our century.

Richard Hofstadter, the distinguished historian and twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, brilliantly assesses the ideas and contributions of the three major American interpretive historians of the twentieth century:  Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard and V.L. Parrington. These men, whose views of history were shaped in large part by the political battles of the Progressive era, provided the Progressive movement with a usable past and the American liberal mind with a historical tradition.  The Progressive Historians is at once a critique of historical thought during this decisive period of American development and an account of how these three writers led American historians into the controversial political world of the twentieth century.
   Turner, in developing his idea that American democracy is the outcome of the experience of frontier expansion and the settlement of the West, introduced his fellow historians to a set of new concepts and methods, and in doing so doing re-drew the guidelines of American historiography.  Beard insisted upon the elitist origins of the Constitution, crusaded for the economic interpretation of history, and ultimately staked his historical reputation on an isolationist view of recent American foreign policy.  Parrington emphasized the moral and social functions of literature, and read the history of literature as a history of the national political mind.
   In recent years, the tide has run against the Progressive historians, as one specialist after another has taken issue with their interpretations.  The movement of contemporary historical thought has led to a rediscovery of the complexity of the American past.  Although he cannot share the faith of the Progressive historians in the sufficiency of American liberalism as a guide to the modern world, Richard Hofstadter believes we have much to learn about ourselves from a reconsideration of their insights.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Americans were nearly universally literate—and they were hungry for the written word. Magazines, novels, and newspapers littered the floors of parlors and tenements alike. With an eye to this market and as a response to devastating unemployment, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration created the Federal Writers’ Project. The Project’s mission was simple: jobs. But, as Wendy Griswold shows in the lively and persuasive American Guides, the Project had a profound—and unintended—cultural impact that went far beyond the writers’ paychecks.

Griswold’s subject here is the Project’s American Guides, an impressively produced series that set out not only to direct travelers on which routes to take and what to see throughout the country, but also to celebrate the distinctive characteristics of each individual state. Griswold finds that the series unintentionally diversified American literary culture’s cast of characters—promoting women, minority, and rural writers—while it also institutionalized the innovative idea that American culture comes in state-shaped boxes. Griswold’s story alters our customary ideas about cultural change as a gradual process, revealing how diversity is often the result of politically strategic decisions and bureaucratic logic, as well as of the conflicts between snobbish metropolitan intellectuals and stubborn locals. American Guides reveals the significance of cultural federalism and the indelible impact that the Federal Writers’ Project continues to have on the American literary landscape.
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