David Brown begins this excellent biography with the observation that Richard Hofstadter’s name continues to evoke “a certain mystique.” Unquestionably Hofstadter was one of the most respected and influential historians of twentieth century. He was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, and one of his works, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948), has sold more than a million copies. More than three decades after his death, all but one of his books remains in print, and his works continue to be popular among college students and history buffs. He was particularly successful in making the study of history relevant by demonstrating the seamless web between the past and the present.
While Brown describes his book as “an extended conversation with the formal writings of Richard Hofstadter,” he also did an admirable amount of research in other literary and archival sources. He frequently quotes from the collected essays in The Hofstadter Aegis (1974), edited by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick. Brown acknowledges his special debt to Susan Baker’s Radical Beginnings: Richard Hofstadter and the 1930’s (1985), and he also utilized the historiographical essays by Paula Fass and Jack Pole. Brown consulted the forty-seven boxes of Hofstadter’s person papers at Columbia University, as well as the large archival collection of his brother-in-law, Harvey Swandos, at the University of Massachusetts. Even more, the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University includes a Richard Hofstadter Project, which contains taped interviews with his colleagues. In addition, Brown either conducted interviews or corresponded with at least thirty-six people who remembered their experiences with Hofstadter.
In 1919, Richard Hofstadter was born in Buffalo, New York, to a lower-middle-class Polish American father and a German Lutheran mother. He was only ten years old when his father died, which apparently left him with a sense of impending tragedy and a premonition of an early death. The economic hardships of the Great Depression also marked his thinking. In 1933, he enrolled at the University of Buffalo (now the State University of New York, Buffalo), where he majored in philosophy and minored in history. Hofstadter later wrote that philosophy interested him “a bit more” than history, but he added: “I am astute enough to see I had no gifts in the field and jobs for philosophers were harder to come by.” Especially influenced by one teacher, Julius Pratt, he became increasingly attracted to history, and he wrote an undergraduate thesis criticizing Charles A. Beard’s economic interpretation of the causes of the Civil War.
Like so many other people during the Depression, Hofstadter believed that capitalism was a pernicious system and hoped for the triumph of socialism. While an undergraduate, he was elected president of the radical left-wing organization the National Student League, and he participated in a nationwide boycott of classes in 1935. After marrying a more radical left-wing activist, Felice Swandos, in 1936, he moved to New York City to study law. Finding the subject dull, however, he decided to pursue a graduate degree in history at Columbia University, not certain whether he wanted to become a journalist or a historian. Both he and his wife joined the Columbia unit of the Communist Party in 1938. Never comfortable with the party’s rigid doctrinaire positions and offended by Joseph Stalin’s Moscow show trials, he left the party after four months, even before the signing of the Soviet-Nazi Pact. For the next several years, he continued to view himself as a person of the radical left, although he was beginning to believe that the New Deal reforms might ameliorate the cruelty and injustices of the capitalist system.
Hofstadter’s M.A. thesis evaluated the agricultural programs of the New Deal from a leftist point of view. Encouraged by Merle Curti to work in the social history of ideas, he selected a historical study of social Darwinism for a Ph.D. dissertation. While working on this project, he obtained a part-time position at Brooklyn College in 1940, followed by a full-time position at the City College the next year, made possible by a Red Scare purge of the faculty. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he escaped the draft because of a combination of allergies and digestive problems. Graduating with his Ph.D. in 1942, he acquired a position at the University of Maryland. When a revision of his dissertation was published in book form two years later as Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915, his academic career appeared secure.
Brown emphasizes that Hofstadter’s book on social Darwinism was a product of “the political and intellectual milieu that shaped its author’s youthful interaction with a tumultuous era.” While he accepted the validity of Darwinian theory as a scientific explanation for biological change, Hofstadter concluded that the application of the paradigm to human society was susceptible to a variety of alternative interpretations. Given his ideological commitments, it is not surprising that he presented Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner as primarily apologists for laissez-faire...
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