Skip to main content
×
×
Home

POPULAR HISTORY, POST-WAR LIBERALISM, AND THE ROLE OF THE PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL IN RICHARD HOFSTADTER'S THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION (1948)*

  • NICK WITHAM (a1)
Abstract
ABSTRACT

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.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure no-reply@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      POPULAR HISTORY, POST-WAR LIBERALISM, AND THE ROLE OF THE PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL IN RICHARD HOFSTADTER'S THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION (1948)*
      Available formats
      ×
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      POPULAR HISTORY, POST-WAR LIBERALISM, AND THE ROLE OF THE PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL IN RICHARD HOFSTADTER'S THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION (1948)*
      Available formats
      ×
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      POPULAR HISTORY, POST-WAR LIBERALISM, AND THE ROLE OF THE PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL IN RICHARD HOFSTADTER'S THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION (1948)*
      Available formats
      ×
Copyright
Corresponding author
Institute of the Americas, University College London, 51 Gordon Square, London, wc1h 0pn n.witham@ucl.ac.uk
Footnotes
Hide All
*

I would like to thank Jonathan Bell, Owen Dudley Edwards, Dan Geary, Simon Hall, Iwan Morgan, Michael O'Brien, Lydia Plath, Leo Ribuffo, Dan Scroop, Robin Vandome, and several anonymous reviewers for the incisive critical readings and thoughtful comments they provided as I wrote and revised this article. I am grateful to Andrew Preston for steering me through the editorial process, and to Eric Foner for generously permitting me to quote from an oral history interview about Richard Hofstadter that he recorded in 1973. I would like to acknowledge funding I received to undertake research on the article from the US-UK Fulbright Commission, the Institute of the Americas at University College London, and the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. Final revisions were undertaken while I was an Arts and Humanities Research Council International Placement Scheme fellow at the Kluge Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Lastly, I would like to show my appreciation to the staff of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University in the City of New York, the Berg Collection and the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library, and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin for all of their support in locating the archival material upon which the article is based.

Footnotes
References
Hide All

1 McIlwain C. H., ‘The historian's part in a changing world’, American Historical Review, 42 (1937), pp. 207–24. The journal printed the president's address as it was delivered the year before at the annual meeting of the AHA.

2 Curti to Hofstadter, 15 Apr. 1948, Alfred A. Knopf papers, Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities, University of Texas at Austin (AAKP), box 30, folder 12.

3 The two book-length treatments of Hofstadter's biography are Susan Stout Baker, Radical beginnings: Richard Hofstadter and the 1930s (Westport, CT, 1985), and David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: an intellectual biography (Chicago, IL, 2006). See also Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, ‘Richard Hofstadter’, in Marcus Cunliffe and Robin D. Winks, eds., Pastmasters: some essays on American historians (Westport, CT, 1969); Howe Daniel Walker and Finn Peter Elliott, ‘Richard Hofstadter: the ironies of an American historian’, Pacific Historical Review, 43 (1974), pp. 123 ; Singal Daniel Joseph, ‘Beyond consensus: Richard Hofstadter and American historiography’, American Historical Review, 89 (1984), pp. 9761004 ; Jack Pole, ‘Richard Hofstadter’, in Robert Allen Rutland, ed., Clio's favorites: leading historians of the United States, 1945–2000 (Columbia, MO, 2000); Livingston James, ‘On Richard Hofstadter and the politics of “consensus history”’, boundary 2, 34 (2007), pp. 3346 .

4 Richard Hofstadter, The American political tradition and the men who made it (New York, NY, 1948), pp. xxxvi–xxxvii.

5 See Crowe Charles, ‘The emergence of progressive history’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 27 (1966), pp. 109–24; Richard Hofstadter, The progressive historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York, NY, 1968); Peter Novick, That noble dream: the ‘objectivity question’ and the American historical profession (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 86–110; Ernst A. Breisach, American progressive history: an experiment in modernization (Chicago, IL, 1993); David S. Brown, Beyond the frontier: the Midwestern voice in American historical writing (Chicago, IL, 2009), pp. 3–74.

6 Louis Hartz, The liberal tradition in America (New York, NY, 1955). For important discussions of consensus thinking about American history and politics, see Gene Wise, American historical explanations: a strategy for grounded inquiry (Homewood, IL, 1973); Bernard Sternsher, Consensus, conflict, and American historians (Bloomington, IN, 1975); White Donald W., ‘History and American internationalism: the formulation from the past after World War II’, Pacific Historical Review, 58 (1989), pp. 145–72; and Wendy L. Wall, Inventing the ‘American way’: the politics of consensus from the new deal to the civil rights movement (Oxford, 2008); Mark Hulliung, ed., The American liberal tradition reconsidered: the contested legacy of Louis Hartz (Lawrence, KS, 2010).

7 Higham John, ‘Beyond consensus: the historian as moral critic’, American Historical Review, 67 (1962), pp. 609–25, at p. 613.

8 Ribuffo Leo, ‘What is still living in “consensus” history and pluralist social theory’, American Studies International, 38 (2000), pp. 4260 , at p. 43.

9 Hofstadter, The progressive historians, p. 451.

10 Howard Brick, ‘The disenchantment of America: radical echoes in 1950s political criticism’, in Kathleen G. Donohue, ed., Liberty and justice for all? Rethinking politics in Cold War America (Amherst, MA, 2012), pp. 157–84, at p. 160.

11 Richard H. Pells, The liberal mind in a conservative age: American intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s (Middletown, CT, 1989), pp. 54–8.

12 Jonathan Bell, The liberal state on trial: the Cold War and American politics in the Truman years (New York, NY, 2004), pp. xiii–xvi.

13 Thomas W. Devine, Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential campaign and the future of postwar liberalism (Chapel Hill, NC, 2013), p. x. On the Wallace campaign and its significance for post-war liberalism, see also Alonzo L. Hamby, Beyond the new deal: Harry S. Truman and American liberalism (New York, NY, 1973); Allen Yarnell, Democrats and progressives: the 1948 presidential election as a test of postwar liberalism (Berkeley, CA, 1974); Delton Jennifer, ‘Rethinking post-World War II anticommunism’, Journal of the Historical Society, 10 (2010), pp. 141 .

14 Hofstadter, The American political tradition, p. xxv.

15 Novick, That noble dream; Kerwin Lee Klein, Frontiers of historical imagination: narrating the European conquest of native America, 1890–1990 (Berkeley, CA, 1997); Ellen Fitzpatrick, History's memory: writing America's past, 1880–1980 (Cambridge, MA, 2002); Brown, Beyond the frontier.

16 Three examples amongst many are Neil Jumonville, Henry Steele Commager: mid-century liberalism and the history of the present (Chapel Hill, NC, 1999); Paul Buhle and Edward Rice-Maximin, William Appleman Williams: the tragedy of empire (New York, NY, 1995); Eric Miller, Hope in a scattering time: a life of Christopher Lasch (Grand Rapids, MI, 2010).

17 The work of Ian Tyrrell is an important exception here. See Ian Tyrrell, Historians in public: the practice of American history, 1890–1970 (Chicago, IL, 2005). See also Erik Christiansen, Channeling the past: politicizing history in postwar America (Madison, WI, 2013).

18 See Greenberg Clement, ‘Avant garde and kitsch’, Partisan Review, 6 (1939), pp. 3449 ; MacDonald Dwight, ‘Masscult and midcult I’, Partisan Review, 27 (1960), pp. 203–33, and Masscult and midcult II’, Partisan Review, 27 (1960), pp. 589631 . For discussions of the New York Intellectuals and their view(s) of American culture, see Terry A. Cooney, The rise of the New York Intellectuals: Partisan Review and its circle (Madison, WI, 1986); Alan M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals: the rise and decline of the anti-Stalinist left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill, NC, 1987); Neil Jumonville, Critical crossings: the New York Intellectuals in postwar America (Berkeley, CA, 1991); Hugh Wilford, The New York Intellectuals: from vanguard to institution (Manchester, 1995).

19 See Joan Shelley Rubin, The making of middlebrow culture (Chapel Hill, NC, 1992), pp. xi–xii.

20 Tim Lacy, The dream of a democratic culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the great books idea (New York, NY, 2013), pp. 11–13.

21 Eric Foner, Who owns history? Rethinking the past in a changing world (New York, NY, 2002), pp. 32–3.

22 Hofstadter, The American political tradition, p. xl.

23 Hofstadter, The progressive historians, p. 466.

24 Stanley Pargellis, ‘The lasting literature and public taste’, Chicago Sun, 2 Dec. 1945, no page numbers, clipping in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, Papers, Manuscripts, and Archives Division, New York Public Library (ASJP), box 527.

25 Schlesinger to Roger L. Scaife (15 Dec. 1940), ASJP, box 407, folder 6.

26 Richard Hofstadter, ‘Democracy in the making’, New Republic, 22 Oct. 1945, p. 541.

27 Hofstadter to Kazin (n.d., c. Nov. 1945), Alfred Kazin Collection of Papers (AKC), Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library.

28 Knopf fellowship advertisement (1945), AAKP, box 564, folder 1.

29 ‘Report on Hofstadter application for Knopf fellowship’, AAKP, box 1377, folder 6.

30 ‘Report on Men and ideas in American politics’ (6 June 1947), AAKP, box 30, folder 12.

31 Strauss to Hofstadter (12 Dec. 1947), AAKP, box 30, folder 12.

32 Hofstadter to Strauss (1 Dec. 1947), AAKP, box 30, folder 12.

33 For Hofstadter's ‘afterthought’ comment, see The American political tradition, p. xxvii.

34 Ibid., pp. 127–8.

35 Ibid., pp. 160–1.

36 Ibid., p. 169.

37 Ibid., p. 123.

38 Ibid., p. 173.

39 Hofstadter to Kazin (n.d., c. 1950–3), AKC.

40 ‘Richard Hofstadter project: Elizabeth Earley’ (Columbia Oral History Research Office, 1973, no. 1463), p. 9.

41 ‘Richard Hofstadter project: Eric Foner’ (Columbia Oral History Research Office, 1973, no. 1306), p. 16.

42 Lionel Trilling, The liberal imagination (New York, NY, 1950), p. xxi.

43 Trilling to Pascal Covici (8 Aug. 1949), Lionel Trilling papers, Columbia University Manuscripts and Rare Books Library, box 6, folder 2.

44 Bender Thomas, ‘Lionel Trilling and American culture’, American Quarterly, 2 (1990), pp. 324–47, at p. 324.

45 Ibid., p. 324–5.

46 Hofstadter to Howard K. Beale (11 Feb. 1948), Richard Hofstadter papers (RHP), Columbia University Manuscripts and Rare Books Library, Uncatalogued Correspondence, box 1.

47 Strauss to Hofstadter (12 Dec. 1947), AAKP, box 30, folder 12.

48 For the title suggestions, see Strauss to Hofstadter (23 Dec. 1947), AAKP, box 30, folder 12. For the response, see Hofstadter to Strauss (30 Dec. 1947), AAKP, box 30, folder 12.

49 ‘Outline table of contents for Eminent Americans’ (23 Jan. 1948), AAKP, box 30, folder 12.

50 Hofstadter to Strauss (25 Mar. 1948), AAKP, box 30, folder 12.

51 Brown, Richard Hofstadter, p. 52.

52 Hofstadter to Knopf (16 Oct. 1948), AAKP, box 30, folder 12.

53 Hofstadter to Knopf (19 Oct. 1948), AAKP, box 30, folder 12.

54 William A. Koshland to Hofstadter (18 May 1949), AAKP, box 49, folder 9.

55 Christiansen, Channeling the past, p. 25.

56 Ibid., p. 24.

57 Janice Radway, A feeling for books: the book-of-the-month club, literary taste, and middle-class desire (Chapel Hill, NC, 1997), p. 10.

58 Kenneth C. Davis, Two-bit culture: the paperbacking of America (Boston, MA, 1984), p. xii.

59 Beth Luey, ‘Modernity and print: the United States, 1890–1970’, in Simon Eliot and Jonathan Roes, eds., A companion to the history of the book (Oxford, 2009), p. 376.

60 Jason Epstein, ‘Views on publishing’, Publisher's Weekly, 16 Dec. 1974, p. 5, cited in Davis, Two-bit culture, pp. 209–10.

61 Hans Schmoller, ‘The paperback revolution’, in Asa Briggs, ed., Essays in the history of publishing: in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the house of Longman, 1724–1974 (London, 1974), p. 305.

62 ‘Eggheads: cracking the enigma’, Newsweek, 8 Oct. 1956, p. 57, cited in Lecklider Aaron S., ‘Inventing the egghead: the paradoxes of brainpower in Cold War American culture’, Journal of American Studies, 45 (2011), p. 250 .

63 Scheiber Harry N., ‘A keen sense of history and the need to act: reflections on Richard Hofstadter and The American political tradition ’, Reviews in American History, 2 (1974), pp. 445–52, at p. 446.

64 Hofstadter to Green (20 Oct. 1969), AAKP, box 833, folder 8.

65 Green to Beatrice Hofstadter (21 Dec. 1972), AAKP, box 833, folder 8.

66 Dwight MacDonald, ‘Masscult and midcult’, in idem, Against the American grain (New York, NY, 1962), pp. 18–19.

67 Ibid., p. 74.

68 Huegli Albert G., ‘ The American political tradition by Richard Hofstadter’, American Political Science Review, 42 (1948), pp. 1214–15.

69 Kooker Arthur R., ‘ The American political tradition by Richard Hofstadter’, Pacific Historical Review, 18 (1949), p. 254 .

70 Gerald W. Johnson, ‘Some tenants of the White House: shrewd appraisals of our presidents, and aspirants to that trying office’, New York Times Book Review, 19 Sept. 1948, p. 1.

71 Oscar Handlin, ‘America's political tradition’, Commentary (July 1949), p. 98.

72 Aaron Daniel, ‘ The American political tradition by Richard Hofstadter’, American Quarterly, 1 (1949), p. 96 .

73 Matthew Josephson to Richard Hofstadter (18 May 1948), RHP, box 20.

74 Fred V. Cahill, ‘Twelve Americans’, Yale Review (Spring 1949), pp. 565–6, at p. 565.

75 Filler Louis, ‘Tenets of scientific skepticism’, Antioch Review (Spring 1949), pp. 8898 , at p. 90.

76 Ibid., p. 91.

77 Ibid., p. 92.

78 Woodward C. Vann, ‘ The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter’, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 35 (1949), pp. 681–2, at p. 681.

79 Ibid., p. 682.

80 John K. Hutchens, ‘Books and things’, New York Herald Tribune, 16 Sept. 1948, no page number, clipping in AAKP, box 1377, folder 2.

81 Robert Friedman, ‘American political tradition: essays on the men who made it’, Daily Worker (n.d.), no page number, clipping in AAKP, box 1377, folder 2.

82 Hofstadter, The American political tradition, pp. 372–3.

83 Ibid., p. 407.

84 Ibid., p. 412.

85 Ibid., p. 426.

86 Ibid., p. 440.

87 Ibid., p. 456.

88 Perry Miller, ‘The new history’, Nation, 16 Oct. 1949, pp. 439–40, at p. 440.

89 Mann Arthur, ‘ The American political tradition by Richard Hofstadter’, William and Mary Quarterly, 6 (1949), p. 302 .

90 Lecklider, ‘Inventing the egghead’, pp. 248–52.

91 The classic denouncement of the decline of public intellectual discourse is Russell Jacoby, The last intellectuals: American culture in the age of academe (New York, NY, 1987). A more recent discussion, along with a wealth of quantitative data, is Richard A. Posner, Public intellectuals: a study of decline (Cambridge, MA, 2003). For an example of how these arguments have been directed towards the historical profession, and in specific relation to the popular historian David McCullough, see Wilentz Sean, ‘America made easy: McCullough, Adams, and the decline of popular history’, New Republic, 225 (2 July 2001), pp. 3540 .

* I would like to thank Jonathan Bell, Owen Dudley Edwards, Dan Geary, Simon Hall, Iwan Morgan, Michael O'Brien, Lydia Plath, Leo Ribuffo, Dan Scroop, Robin Vandome, and several anonymous reviewers for the incisive critical readings and thoughtful comments they provided as I wrote and revised this article. I am grateful to Andrew Preston for steering me through the editorial process, and to Eric Foner for generously permitting me to quote from an oral history interview about Richard Hofstadter that he recorded in 1973. I would like to acknowledge funding I received to undertake research on the article from the US-UK Fulbright Commission, the Institute of the Americas at University College London, and the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. Final revisions were undertaken while I was an Arts and Humanities Research Council International Placement Scheme fellow at the Kluge Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Lastly, I would like to show my appreciation to the staff of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University in the City of New York, the Berg Collection and the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library, and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin for all of their support in locating the archival material upon which the article is based.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
×

Metrics

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 40
Total number of PDF views: 246 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 732 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 18th December 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.