This article examines the status of Richard Hofstadter's classic work The American political tradition (1948) as a ‘popular history’. It uses documents drawn from Hofstadter's personal papers, those of his publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., as well as several of his contemporaries, to pursue a detailed reconstruction of the manner in which the book was written, edited, and reviewed, and to demonstrate how it circulated within, and was defined by, the literary culture of the 1940s and 1950s. The article explores Hofstadter's early career conception of himself as a scholar writing for audiences outside of the academy, reframes the significance of so-called ‘middlebrow’ literature, and, in doing so, offers a fresh appraisal of the links between popular historical writing, liberal politics, and the role of public intellectuals in the post-war United States.
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