by Jeremy Young | 4/29/2008 04:31:00 PM
[The following review essay was written by James Livingston. It was originally published in the Fall 2007 issue of boundary2 and appears here for the first time online. Livingston will be available to answer comments on the thread. -- Ed.]

David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Pp. xxiii, 237 + notes, bibliography, index.

The cultural function of the modern historian is to teach us how to learn from people with whom we differ due to historical circumstances (and such circumstances include the range of ideological commitments they can profess with plausibility). We “go back” to the people of the past in the hope of changing our perspective on the present and thus multiplying our choices about the future. But these people with whom we differ, and from whom we must learn, are, to begin with, other historians; for there is no way to peek over the edges of our present as if they aren’t there, standing between us and the archive, telling us how to approach it.

No one gets to the “primary sources,” whether they are constituted as the historical record or as the literary canon, without going through the priests, scribes, librarians, professors, critics—the professionals—who created them in retrospect, in view of their own intellectual obligations and political purposes. In this sense, history is not the past as such, just as the canon is not literature as such; it is the ongoing argument between historians, among others, about what qualifies as an event, a document, an epoch. It is the endless argument about what the future holds; for the form and the content of the past matter only to those with political commitments in the present, and so to the future.

Richard Hofstadter understood these obvious yet awkward facts better than anyone of his generation, even better, I think, than William Appleman Williams or Eugene Genovese or C. Vann Woodward, three great scholars whose published works had improbably profound political effects in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. “Historians do not have direct access to their subjects,” as he put it in 1956. So we do not have to “go back” very far to appreciate Hofstadter’s lasting effects on American intellectual life. Indeed I would suggest that we are just now catching up to him. For he stood at the heart of the social and intellectual changes specific to the 20th century, always trying to tell us where those changes might lead. He still stands between us and the archive; and his interference remains instructive.(1)

Hofstadter was born in 1916, in Buffalo, New York, then a prosperous port city and a vibrant manufacturing town. He was the son of a Jewish immigrant and a native-born Lutheran who raised him as an Episcopalian: America dreamed him. He attended the University of Buffalo in the early 1930s, where he took courses with Julius Pratt, a counter-progressive diplomatic historian avant la lettre—the American empire was a big mistake, he argued, an embarrassing by-product of sloppy thinking and high spirits at the State Department—connived with left-wing activists who promoted the Popular Front, and yet fell under the spell of Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, whose two-volume Rise of American Civilization (1927) was still a sensation both inside and outside the academy, in part because it reanimated the central principles of “Progressive” historiography. By the time he left Buffalo, however, Hofstadter had begun to complicate his identification with the Left, and had realized that the Beards’ forceful restatement of “Progressive” principles was a new instance of the Owl of Minerva, spreading its wings only at dusk, at the very moment of its eclipse. His senior thesis, soon after published in the American Historical Review, was a revisionist study of the tariff in the electoral politics of 1860.

Hofstadter moved to New York City in 1936 with his radical, charismatic young wife, Felice Swados, apparently to attend law school as per his family’s wishes. There he fell in with a new Popular Front crowd (including Alfred Kazin) which she and her brother, Harvey, cultivated. He actually joined the Communist Party in late 1938, lasting for all of four months, resigning before the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Meanwhile, bored by the study of the law, Hofstadter enrolled in the graduate history program at Columbia. But, despite his extraordinary ability and accomplishments—how many undergraduates see their senior theses published in the AHR?—he struggled in the program until Merle Curti and Henry Steele Commager commandeered his career. Together they pointed him toward intellectual history and, not incidentally, deflected the old-school anti-Semitism that had stalled his applications for fellowships. He completed his PhD in 1942 by writing a dissertation on the reception of Herbert Spencer in the U.S., which became, in 1944, his first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought.

The book is an elegy for the “conservative thought” of the late-19th century which reached its apogee in the publications of William Graham Sumner, who never was as influential as later critics of laissez-faire, like Hofstadter, wanted to believe. It was also a celebration of the “dissenters” from Social Darwinism, particularly the early pragmatists. This rendition of intellectual history in the age of William James and John Dewey suffered from two obvious defects the author did not, and probably could not, address. On the one hand, the mainstream of American thought, then as now, was nowhere near conservative; if anything, it was alarmingly radical, even after the anarchist debacle of 1886, because, then as now, it subsisted on brute inversions of every received tradition. Like most left-wing intellectuals, then as now, Hofstadter wrote his own alienation from that imaginary mainstream into a past that could be adjourned and thus ignored. On the other hand, the so-called dissenters from this imaginary mainstream were intellectually and politically enabled by their endorsement of Darwin’s theory of evolution, for example in repudiating the “atomistic individualism” they inherited from the bourgeois epoch.(2)

Like every other ism we take for granted, including capitalism and socialism, Social Darwinism was neither conservative nor liberal; it was neither progressive nor regressive; it was neither scientific nor religious; it was all of the above. The author of the first (and, to my knowledge, only) book on the topic couldn’t acknowledge this ambiguity until it was reissued in 1955 with a new introduction. In that setting, he noticed in passing that “in America the roles of the liberal and the conservative have been so often intermingled, and in some ways reversed, that clear traditions have never taken form.”(3)

Here he also emphasized the central, and disturbing, insight of The Age of Reform, the book he had just finished: “Sumner expressed an inherited conception of economic life, even today fairly widespread among conservatives in the U.S, under which economic activity was considered to be above all a field for the development and encouragement of personal character. . . Today we have passed out of the economic framework in which that ethic was formed.” That momentous historic passage was rendered in a syntactical mode that would make Henry James himself wince: “And anyone who today imagines that he is altogether out of sympathy with that ethic should ask himself whether he has never, in contemplating the possibility of a nearly workless economic order, powered by atomic energy and managed by automation, had at least a moment of misgiving about the fate of man in society bereft of the moral discipline of work.” Like Daniel Bell, and like many neo-conservatives as well as ultra-liberals of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Hofstadter had begun to worry about the very possibility of morality in the absence of economic necessity, in the presence of material abundance.(4)

He had meanwhile taken a job at the University of Maryland. Even this academic backwater looked better than military service in the worldwide struggle against fascism—“My father once confessed to me that he simply wouldn’t have had the courage to fight in the war,” his son noted—and indeed, because what Clark Kerr later called the “Great Transformation of Higher Education” was already underway in the 1940s, he found three colleagues there who would invigorate and inform his subsequent intellectual development: Frank Freidel, who knew more about FDR than anyone until William Leuchtenburg headed for Hyde Park; Kenneth Stampp, who was already determined to revise historical accounts of slavery and Reconstruction along the lines proposed by W. E. B. Du Bois and Howard Beale; and C. Wright Mills, the original outsider—“I am an outlander, down bone deep and for good,” he once said, having been educated in Texas and Wisconsin—who, like David Riesman, was trying to domesticate the Frankfurt School’s ideas about modern subjectivity and mass culture (Mills’s advisor at Wisconsin was Hans Gerth, a Frankfurt alumnus).(5)

Hofstadter published his way out of Maryland, as did his soon-to-be famous colleagues; by 1946, he was far into the writing of The American Political Tradition, thanks to a fellowship from Knopf, and had accepted an appointment as an assistant professor at Columbia, thanks to Commager and Harry Carman, another mentor from the early days as a graduate student. Felice had died of cancer in July, 1945; her husband kept writing, five pages a day, as a way of keeping this new reality at the distance required by the laconic, dispassionate historical analysis he was now perfecting.

The American Political Tradition (1948) is probably Hofstadter’s most accessible work because he was writing as a ventriloquist, speaking through the historians, among them Freidel and Stampp, who had spurred his rethinking of historiographical truisms, and trying to say something useful, as a public intellectual, about the political culture of the United States. It is a set of conjectures about modern politics, a collection of essays rather than a monograph; its attitude toward history borrowed heavily from the debunking imperative at work in Thurman Arnold’s caustic books on the anti-trust animus of the early New Deal. All politics was a matter of ritual, ceremony, and/or rhetoric—a studied evasion of reality which, at least in America, presupposed a “mute organic consistency” or a “common ground, a unity of cultural and political tradition,” in other words a consensus. Even Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln and FDR were politicians par excellence, so there was no point in accrediting the differences they claimed to have made, or in worshipping at the shrine of the other “great men” who had made the American political tradition.

And there was every reason to look elsewhere for the architecture of another American history. Hofstadter’s demolition of the received tradition was perfectly in keeping with the “Progressive,” debunking style, and, following in the footsteps of Fredrick Jackson Turner, it drew deeply on the Marxist tradition; and so it led toward—at any rate it allowed for—what we now call the new social history, which, just to begin with, broadened our notions of political agency by assigning causative historical significance to sailors, drunkards, whores, and midwives. That is probably why The American Political Tradition is still in print, and still in use (for example, I assigned it to my large survey class in the fall of 2006, and my daughter had to read it in 2005, in her first semester of college): it is consistent with the radicalism—the urge to repudiate the idiocies and atrocities of the American past—that permeates so much of social history.(6)

Between 1948 and 1955, when The Age of Reform appeared to great acclaim—except of course from The Nation’s reviewer, William Appleman Williams—Hofstadter immersed himself in social theory and literary criticism (starting in 1948, he read all of his colleague Lionel Trilling’s works), and somehow co-wrote several books on the history of higher education. His new engagement with the methods of sociology and psychology signified a new awareness and appreciation of what the Frankfurt School could bring to bear on questions of historical periodization; it also signaled the advent of what we call “inter-disciplinary” genres of history. As he noted in Fritz Stern’s collection, The Varieties of History (1956), “the historian’s contact with the social sciences is clearly of more importance to the present generation of historians than it has been at any time in the past.” Such “contact” was now more important because the rise (and undeniable success) of fascist and communist movements after World War I had shown that neither capitalism nor socialism was necessarily liberal or democratic: the social sciences, particularly the social psychology recently perfected by the Frankfurt School in The Authoritarian Personality (1950), and in David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd (1950), offered methods by which the composition and trajectory of mass movements—“current mass political behavior,” as Hofstadter put it—could be deciphered and the future of totalitarianism could be foretold.(7)

This new social psychology was built on two premises, both of which fed into Hofstadter’s Age of Reform and, for that matter, into serious questions about liberalism as a sustainable system in the 1950s and 60s. The first was that “individuality loses its economic basis,” as Max Horkheimer put it in Eclipse of Reason (1947), to the extent that the “reifying mechanisms” specific to large corporations, government bureaucracies, and mass communications turn almost everyone into middle-class, white-collared, “other-directed” clerks in the cultural apparatus. Could a liberal democratic society survive in the absence of those “inner-directed” proprietors of themselves, those omnicompetent citizens, who had made politics so popular in the 19th century? If not, that is, if the economic basis of modern individualism residing in the widespread ownership of productive property was now irretrievable, what other footing could be found for a liberal democratic society? Were there extra-economic, post-modern sources of individuality, thus of political conflict and collectivity—and vice versa?(8)

The second premise of the new social psychology to be learned in the Frankfurt School—to be derived from its promising curricular mix of Freud and Weber—was that reason and desire were not antithetical modes of apprehending the world. Rationality was informed by and consistent with the most perverse forms of emotional commitment, as witness the denouement of the dialectic of Enlightenment in the European charnel house of the 1940s. What, then, to do with the concept of ideology, which contained useful notions of “situated knowledge” as per Karl Mannheim, to be sure, but which also retained petrified ideas about class interests and “false consciousness” because it was predicated on a correspondence theory of knowledge as such (whereby good ideas are copies of an external reality, and right-thinking citizens/workers/activists know how to make those copies because they always already agree on their interests)? What to do with the irrational, indeed actively anti-intellectual rituals of modern politics, especially the mass cultural politics that characterized the mid-20th century? Was it enough to treat them as “contradictions” or trivialities that disarmed otherwise progressive—or otherwise necromanic—causes? Or must we dispense with the residual dignity of Ideology as a useful category of historical or political analysis, as Philip Converse, Angus Campbell, and other political scientists did in studying “mass belief systems,” and as Clifford Geertz and C. Wright Mills did for their cognate disciplines in the 1950s and 60s? Must we then treat the irrational, indeed actively anti-intellectual rituals of modern politics as constituent elements of their appeal to everyone, even the educated voters among us?(9)

These are the questions that animate The Age of Reform and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), Hofstadter’s two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, and that inform the extraordinary intellectual ferment of the 1950s and 1960s and beyond, leading toward the New Left, the New Right, and the radical redefinition of liberalism in our own time. You would never know it by reading David S. Brown’s new “intellectual biography,” as he calls it. Here you will find instead a search for the “ethnocultural roots of Hofstadter’s work” which can be read either as an earnest parody of Progressive historiography—by this account, the historians who defended Populism and who remained suspicious of Eastern, “ethnic” interpretations were Protestants from the Midwest and the South, precisely those provincial character types who led the Populist revolt in the first place—or as the attempted capture of intellectual history by the essentialism of identity politics.

Here you will find the story of brilliant Eastern Jews like Hofstadter trying to wrest control of the historical profession from benighted Midwestern Gentiles like John D. Hicks and William A. Williams. For example: “In practice, cultural cleavages had a way of hardening into intellectual divisions. While the days of Jewish student quotas at the major universities had passed [by the 1960s], Anglo-ethnic differences in historical methodology—evidenced in Wisconsin’s devotion to Progressive historiography and Columbia’s commitment to the social sciences—were clearly marked.” Or again: “the Wisconsin scholar [Frederick Jackson Turner] remained unequivocally committed to the familiar, Anglo-Saxon traditions. Blood, it seemed, remained thicker than professional training.” And here you will also find a happy ending, entitled, with no apparent irony, “The Twilight of Waspdom.”(10)

According to Brown, the Progressive/Protestant citadel and its Populist annex were protected by a “Wasp consensus” until Hofstadter finally demolished them in The Age of Reform. No matter that, by abstaining from the primal scene of confrontation between “civilized” white men and “primitive races,” by foregrounding the frontier and the financial revolution—the country and the city—as the real estate of American civilization, and by making capital as such the predator of the small holder and the freeholder, Progressive historiography became the setting in which class superseded race as the central category of narratives that offer to explain the national experience. No matter that Williams, the bona fide WASP from Iowa and the big fan of Beard from the University of Wisconsin, was always as deeply engaged as Hofstadter in the reconstruction of the Progressive edifice, and of the larger intellectual scene, by excavating their foundations and, where possible, building new narrative structures on the ruins of the old.(11)

It is of course true that Williams was Hofstadter’s fiercest critic in the 1950s and 60s. But both wrote “consensus” history, as John Higham named the post-Progressive disciplinary order. For both argued that the seemingly titanic struggles of the past had typically (not always) taken place within a cross-class ideological agreement, or rather a cultural system, which pacified social conflict by naturalizing possessive individualism and liberal capitalism. Both argued that as the imperatives of goods production and economic necessity receded in the 20th century, the capital-labor relation described a shrinking set of social relations, and, accordingly, that historians could no longer take the priority of class struggle for granted. Both argued that the large, privately-chartered corporations which erupted from the wreckage of late-19th century economic crisis were organic moments in the development of American civilization—it was a country created by corporations like the Massachusetts Bay Co., Williams noted—which had been fitfully disciplined by anti-trust law and then finally domesticated by the New Deal (Hofstadter actually used this metaphor in The Age of Reform: “by 1933 the American public had lived with the great corporation for so long that it was felt to be domesticated”). And both argued that neither the Populist Revolt of the 1890s nor the Popular Front of the 1930s would serve as a usable past for the American Left because neither represented a fundamental departure from the American consensus on possessive individualism and liberal capitalism.(12)

Together Hofstadter and Williams showed that the Populists were petty bourgeois men on the make. In doing so, they showed that the anti-monopoly tradition enfranchised by the People’s Party, then bought by the Communist Party, and later refinanced by neo-Progressive historiography, was a political dead end because it treated the small holder—the man who did not have to sell his capacity to produce value through work, and thus owned himself—as the epitome of the self-mastering individual. Hofstadter and Williams insisted that this honorable tradition could not acknowledge the legitimacy of the large corporation, and could not, therefore, accommodate either the new forms of subjectivity or the new possibilities of political community enabled by corporate capitalism. In this sense, their competing brands of “consensus history” were deeply indebted to the insights and methods of the Frankfurt School, but they rarely indulged the pathos of authenticity—the urge to stake out an ideal zone of use-value that is exempt from the demands of normal wage labor and the everyday atrocities of the commodity form—which, then as now, drives “critical theory” and regulates the historiographical mainstream.(13)

Like Williams, Hofstadter veered toward belabored, idiosyncratic statements of a post-Progressive political creed in the early 1960s, as the New Left took shape, mainly in the Midwest, and as the New Right took shape, mainly in the Southwest. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is, by all accounts, including Hofstadter’s own, his least satisfying book, even though it won a Pulitzer. Every paragraph except those derived from his reading of a specific text—he is especially good at deciphering the sermons of the Great Awakening—groans under the verbal weight of the need to explain what he is not doing; the book is 300 pages too long.

Moreover, his distinction between the real intellectual and the journeyman professional (identified as lawyers, editors, engineers, doctors, some writers, most professors) is perfectly consistent with the quintessentially American suspicion of those “middlemen,” those paper-pushers, whose incomes are deductions from the sum of value, the stock of goods, created by genuinely productive labor; it is perfectly consistent, in other words, with the pathos of authenticity he elsewhere eschews: “The heart of the matter—to borrow a distinction made by Max Weber—is that the professional man lives off ideas, not for them. His professional role, his professional skills, do not make him an intellectual. . . .At home he may happen to be an intellectual, but at his job he is a hired mental technician who uses his mind for the pursuit of externally determined ends.” So his concluding indictment of democracy as the breeding ground of anti-intellectualism is less than persuasive because he has already endorsed the egalitarian notion that when ideas are for sale they will inevitably serve the purposes of the highest bidder.(14)

The next book, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968) was a reckoning with the intellectual tradition that had been demoted if not displaced by the cataclysmic changes of the 1930s and 40s. The author suggested that the return of the repressed urge to write the “history of ideas” without reference to their historical contexts, a professional urge exemplified by Arthur O. Lovejoy, had made “Turnerian environmentalism” unseemly. There was, however, more than a hint of autobiography in the larger explanation of fundamental historiographical change: “But Turnerism came under fire above all because its premises seemed incongruous with the realities of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Its intellectual isolationism seemed to belong to another age. Turner’s celebration of American individualism rang false at a time when too many were suffering from the excesses of the individualists. The latent pessimism in the exhaustion-of-free-land [frontier] theme—an aspect of his ideas that troubled Turner as well as others—was unsuited to the activist mood demanded by any radical attempt to cope with the Depression.” And so on.(15)

By Hofstadter’s accounting, World War II was more important than the Depression in creating an intellectual climate conducive to “consensus history,” a label he disliked because it emphasized the conservative consequences and obscured the Marxist sources of the methodological approach in question (“I believe it will be understood that the idea of consensus is not intrinsically linked to ideological conservatism,” he declared in his conclusion: “In its origins I believe it owed almost as much to Marx as to Toqueville”). He identified Louis Hartz and Daniel Boorstin as the “two leading consensus theorists,” and characterized their thinking as products of America’s sudden rise to world power. “Their works are distinctively books of the postwar era, works which could not have been written in the 1930s when Americans were still absorbed in their own domestic conflicts and when the preconceptions of Progressive historical writing were still persuasive,” Hofstadter claimed, and went on to situate them in other, larger kinds of conflict: “The efforts of Hartz in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955) and Boorstin in The Genius of American Politics (1953) come from the search for a usable past consistent with the sense of the world brought by the war, and responsive to the problems of foreign policy in the early phases of the cold war.”

But he did not reduce them to shills for a new American Empire; instead he noticed their refusal of the messianic urge to export, and then enforce, the ideas and institutions of a nation “born free.” In effect, he let Hartz and Boorstin reiterate what he wrote in January 1948, in the introduction to The American Political Tradition: “In a corporate and consolidated society demanding international responsibility, cohesion, centralization, and planning, the traditional ground is shifting under out feet. It is imperative in a time of cultural crisis to gain fresh perspectives on the past.” And then he mapped the near future of historiographical change by listing the “three major areas” of American history that would remain immune to the methods and the sensibilities of consensus: the Revolution, the Civil War, and “the racial, ethnic, and religious conflict with which our history is saturated.”(16)

Two more important books, The Idea of a Party System (1969) and America at 1750 (1971) followed—one was published posthumously, both were parts of a huge textbook project lavishly funded by Oxford University Press. The last book was an unflinching, even heartbreaking portrait of a people in bondage, not “born free”: slaves to be sure, but also the “surplus population,” the indentured servants and sturdy beggars and hapless vagabonds exported from Europe as so much chattel in the 17th and 18th centuries.(17)

For my money, however, 1968 was Hofstadter’s finest hour, the moment he became the most important historian of his generation. That was the year he sat through Mark Naison’s PhD qualifying exam even as student radicals occupied Fayerweather Hall, and, then, having observed all the relevant academic rituals, was escorted out of the building by the candidate by way of a window. That was the year he gave the commencement address at the request of the faculty of Columbia, who feared more disruption if the president of the university appeared before the graduating class. That was the year of The Progressive Historians, when he reopened the archive by interfering yet again with our attitudes toward history, by persuading us that, even in the final analysis, the people out of the past from whom we first learn are other historians.

1968 was also the year Hofstadter wrote an anguished piece for The New York Times Magazine on how to lose a war. On May 18, when it was published, “only” 20,000 Americans had died in Vietnam—the final toll was more than twice that—and there was no end in sight. But Hofstadter knew it was over. He also knew that the ideological aftermath would shape the remainder of the century. Here is how he concluded: “To absorb the sense of guilt and failure that Americans will take away from Vietnam is unquestionably a tax on our maturity. But the experience may be turned to some use if we can define more articulately than we have ever done the realistic limits of our national aspirations. It is essential for us to do so precisely because we are by far the world’s strongest power. For the rest of the world it would be reassuring to know that our aspirations are, after all, really limited. It might even be reassuring for ourselves.”

There are plenty of historians, political scientists, and journalists who can tell us why we will lose the current war, but very few who can tell us how—that is, how the humility induced by military defeat or stalemate might be consistent with the promise of American life. Hofstadter could have. Were he still among us, telling us where fundamental changes in our international posture might lead, we would know better than to equate the rise and fall of world power with military victories and losses. At any rate we would know that the cultural function of the modern historian was in question, but still intact.

*Author’s Note: In addition to the biographical information in David Brown’s book, I have drawn on (and sometimes disagreed with) acute essays by Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick, Paula Fass, Eric Foner, Daniel J. Singal, and Sam Tanenhaus, all of whom except Tanenhaus were Hofstadter students at Columbia, ca. 1959-1976 (Fass and Singal completed their degrees in 1974 and 1976, respectively, after Hofstadter’s death in 1970). I am grateful to Professor Singal for correcting my mistakes and to Jonathan Arac, Bruce Robbins, Louis Ferleger, James Oakes, Nick Bromell, Patricia Rossi, and especially Eugene D. Genovese for attempting to change my mind and mend my prose.

(1) On Williams, see James Livingston, “Farewell to Intellectual Godfather of the New Left,” In These Times March 28-April 3, 1990, and “Social Theory and Historical Method in the Work of William Appleman Williams,” Diplomatic History 25 (2001): 275-82; the latter was part of a roundtable that began as a panel at the 2000 Meeting of the Organization of American Historians which included Justus Doenecke, Patricia Limerick, Leo Ribuffo, and Paul Buhle. See also Paul Buhle & Edward Rice-Maximin, William Appleman Williams: The Tragedy of Empire (New York: Routledge, 1995). On Genovese, see James Livingston, “’Marxism’ and the Politics of History: Reflections on the Work of Eugene D. Genovese,” Radical History Review 88 (2004): 30-48, with comment following by James Oakes, Peter Kolchin, and Diane Sommerville. On Woodward, see the special issue of The Journal of Southern History 67 (2001), devoted to discussion of his Origins of the New South (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1951) on its 50th anniversary. Hofstadter quoted from his “History and the Social Sciences,” in Fritz Stern, ed., The Varieties of History (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), pp. 359-70, here 368.

(2) Hofstadter did, in fact, acknowledge that the embrace of evolutionary doctrine had unpredictably ambiguous effects; for example: “Working primarily with the basic Darwinian concepts—organism, environment, adaptation—and speaking the language of naturalism, the pragmatic tradition had a very different intellectual and practical issue from Spencerianism.” Social Darwinism in American Thought, rev. ed. (Boston: Beacon, 1955), p. 125. But he did not try to explain this ambiguity

(3) Ibid., p. 9.

(4) Ibid., pp. 10-11. Daniel Bell’s worries on this score eventually culminated in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic, 1976). But as early as 1956, he reiterated Hofstadter’s concenrns about the moral problem of a world in which “not only the worker but work itself is displaced by the machine”: see Bell, Work and its Discontents (Boston: Beacon, 1956), pp. 45-56. Long before this moment, and long before George Gilder and Michael Novak prescribed more family and fatherhood as the cure for what ails us, Joseph Schumpeter argued that “capitalist evolution not only upsets social structures which protected the capitalist interests. . . but also undermines the attitudes, motivations, and beliefs of the capitalist stratum itself. . . [e.g.] the loosening of the family tie—a typical feature of the culture of capitalism—removes or weakens what, no doubt, was the center of the motivation of the businessman of old.” Business Cycles, 2 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1939), 2: 699. The broader intellectual and political concerns about mass culture, “consumer culture,” etc., are analyzed in Paul R. Gorman, Left Intellectuals and Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); on the current academic Left’s reading of consumer culture, see also James Livingston, Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History (New York: Routledge, 2001), chap. 1.

(5) On what Clark Kerr called the “Great Transformation of Higher Education,” see my treatment in The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield, chap. 2.

(6) On Turner’s inflections of Achille Loria, the Italian Marxist, see Lee Benson, Turner and Beard: American Historical Writing Reconsidered (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960), pp. 1-91.

(7) On Hofstadter’s continuous and explicit engagement with Adorno, Riesman, Mills, et al., see “History and the Social Sciences,” pp. 362-66, and his “History and Sociology in the United States,” in Seymour Martin Lipset & Richard Hofstadter, eds., Sociology and History: Methods (New York: Basic, 1968), pp. 3-19. With respect to the new genre of social psychology as “analytical history” written in the Frankfurt style of The Authoritarian Personality, see also Hans Gerth & C. Wright Mills, Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953); and Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man (New York: Doubleday, 1960).

(8) Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (1947; Boston: Beacon Press, 1974), p. 141. The language of “inner direction,” etc., is of course drawn from David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University press, 1950), who readily acknowledged the Frankfurt School’s influence in the development of his own character typology: see p. 176. C. Wright Mills pondered the possibilities of a post-modern subject(ivity) in “On Reason and Freedom,” The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 165-76.

(9) These and other pressing questions about the viability of popular politics and the utility of the concept of ideology are posed most pointedly in Philip Converse, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” in David Apter, ed., Ideology and Discontent (Glencoe, Ill: Free Press, 1964), pp. 206-61; Clifford Geertz’s seminal essay, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” appears in the same anxious volume at pp. 47-76. In a similar vein—that is, in a similar spirit of strategic retreat from Marxian metanarratives—see also Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960), and George Lichtheim, “The Concept of Ideology,” in The Concept of Ideology and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1967), pp. 3-46.

(10) See Brown, Hofstadter, pp. 4-7, 16-17, 31-34, 39, 53, 73-76, 100-03, 111-13, 133, 195-98.

(11) See Livingston, “Social Theory and Historical Method in the Work of Williams.”

(12) See Williams, The Great Evasion (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1964), and The Contours of American History (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1961), Part I; Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR (New York: Vintage, 1955), p. 312.

(13) I treat the “pathos of authenticity” as the key constraint on fresh thinking about the future of subjectivity and politics as such in “Pragmatism, Nihilism, and Democracy: What is Called Thinking at the End of Modernity?,” an essay forthcoming in a centenary volume on William James’s Pragmatism edited by John Stuhr for Indiana University Press.; I borrow the phrase from Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture, trans. Jon Snyder (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988). See also my Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy, chaps. 1-2, 4, where I deploy Kenneth Burke’s distinction between tragic and comic “frames of acceptance” in the hope of detaching mainstream historians from their uniform fondness for narratives that combine energetically ironic form and inevitably pathetic content.

(14) Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1963), pp. 55-74, 24-28, 406-12. It is no accident that Hofstadter’s early admiration for the original pragmatists evaporates in this book; for it is the work most deeply informed by the tragic sensibilities of the Frankfurt School.
(15) The Progressive Historians (New York: Vintage, 1968), p. 92.

(16) The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Knopf, 1948), p. x; Progressive Historians, pp. 446-59.

(17) See America at 1750: A Social Portrait (New York: Vintage, 1973), chaps. 1-4.



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Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/29/2008 6:46 PM:

(I'm not going to attempt one big comment, but make comments as I find things to say)

the form and the content of the past matter only to those with political commitments in the present, and so to the future.

Almost right. I would take out the word "political": not all of our committments to the present and future can be constrained in that narrow realm. My committment to pragmatic intellectual honesty is not a political one, as I see it, though it has profound political implications.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/29/2008 7:22 PM:

(OK, I finished it. Americanists will have a lot more to say about than I.)

I'm not sure I've ever seen, in an academic publication, such a long review which spent so little time engaging with the book under consideration.

He also knew that the ideological aftermath would shape the remainder of the century. ... " But the experience may be turned to some use if we can define more articulately than we have ever done the realistic limits of our national aspirations.”
There are plenty of historians, political scientists, and journalists who can tell us why we will lose the current war, but very few who can tell us how—that is, how the humility induced by military defeat or stalemate might be consistent with the promise of American life.

This is a fascinating and disturbing challenge in its own right. It would require articulating a vision in which irreducible complexity and unrepentent pragmatism were consistent with American optimism, ideologism and preference for simplicity.


Anonymous on 4/29/2008 8:36 PM:

Sure you have. NYRB or LRB always features reviews in which the reviewer is the featured player, in accordance with the idea that reception (consumption) is at least as important as conception (production).

I'd love to hear more about the pragmatist realism you're citing here.


Anonymous on 4/29/2008 9:06 PM:

And besides, Hofstadter is really important in the very long run, and Brown's book is not.

We need to get over the intellectual petrification that enfranchises a biography as narrowly conceived as this one. That reanimation will let us see that he speaks across almost every line of discipline and field, so that just Americanists--just us--aren't his only audience.

And may I say, in almost apology, that it took me many years to understand what the man was up to.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 4/29/2008 9:43 PM:

Jim, I have NO idea why it's showing your e-mail address up there. I've never seen that happen before. Do you want me to delete the comments and repost without the personal info?


Blogger Jeremy Young on 4/29/2008 9:47 PM:

Also, I have to say, in Ahistoricality's defense -- if you'd mentioned your opinion on Brown in the text, you wouldn't be open to the charge. I've only skimmed the piece so far, but it does seem to have almost nothing to do with Brown's book. Not that there's anything wrong with that, or that it makes your arguments any less valid, but if I were Brown I'd be a mite peeved.


Blogger mark on 4/29/2008 10:47 PM:

A well considered, scholarly piece. I have a question about one of the premises:

"On the one hand, the mainstream of American thought, then as now, was nowhere near conservative; if anything, it was alarmingly radical, even after the anarchist debacle of 1886, because, then as now, it subsisted on brute inversions of every received tradition"

Hmmm. I spent a fair amount of time, back in the day, on studying the Populist movement, both primary sources and historiography. Certainly, they were a vigorous and at times, quite radical, movement that drew on deep agrarian roots and presented an alternative political economy to laissez-faire.

But radicalism per se was a cultural or political majority in this era ? I'm skeptical. If so, why were Left-wing intellectuals so alienated in America if radicalism represented a consensus view ?


Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/30/2008 3:05 AM:

I've seen NYRB and LRB reviews, sure; I don't consider them academic venues. boundary2 is published by Duke and gives the impression of being an academic publication. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it -- it was perfectly interesting -- but it doesn't really fill the same needs as an academic review. contra Jeremy, though, I spotted your takedown of Brown's thesis, tucked in the middle of your piece, and figured that you just decided against saying more. You left the impression that the book was pretty much worthless and your time was better spent elsewhere.

"We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood." -- William James

I'm not being particularly original in my invocation of "pragmatic intellectual honesty," though I'm perhaps a bit more open than most about the limits of my knowledge with my students. It's hard to reserve judgement and even harder to change your mind but I think my committment to do so when appropriate is both socially and politically radical. It's a bit utitlitarian but doesn't preclude certain fundamental principles (c.f. J.S. Mill, On Liberty)

If, on the other hand, you're asking about "a vision in which irreducible complexity and unrepentent pragmatism were consistent with American optimism, ideologism and preference for simplicity," then I'm going to have to put you off. I honestly don't know how to reconcile these things, but it seems to me that the acceptance of complexity which resists simple change and the acceptance of pragmatism (instead of practicality; not the same thing) are the necessary attitudes for accepting this defeat (for I do believe the Bush mission in Iraq has been defeated) and I honestly have no way to reconcile those attitudes with those of the American public which twice voted for Bush in sufficient numbers to have him assume the presidency.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 4/30/2008 3:46 AM:

Well, pbbbbbt! That's because you actually READ the essay, while I criticized it WITHOUT reading it.

My apologies to Jim for the mis-skimming.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/30/2008 4:09 AM:

Well, pbbbbbt!

My students say the same thing about my pop quizzes.....

if I were Brown I'd be a mite peeved

I actually think that the buried review is quite devastating. If I were Brown, I'd have rather it were left out entirely.


Anonymous on 4/30/2008 8:22 PM:

For Mark: yeah, radicalism is the sign of American intellectual life. We--that is, us lefties--now control the commanding heights of the higher education, where the repudiation of the past is business as usual, but back in the day, when nobody knew what the received tradition was (they were just making it up), everybody was, er, making it up, getting all radical, trying to escape the past.

Americans, esp. the intellectuals, have always been good at showing us how we can evade the past. Nothing new there. It all depends on how you define radicalism. For me, the Populists don't matter except as the trace of bourgeois individualism.

For ahistoricality: we have to talk about pragmatism. Soon. Shoot, I've written two books that go from there, the "there" in view, in question, being pragmatism.

You gotta get less cryptic in your references, and then I'll get all happy in my responses. And how come you're claiming exemption from American history and then cloaking yourself in this very serious version of pragmatism?

For Jeremy: Just thanks, man, if you're the cheese you don't have to be the line editor. Just thanks.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/30/2008 10:36 PM:

how come you're claiming exemption from American history and then cloaking yourself in this very serious version of pragmatism?

Isn't that what everyone does?

(Seriously, though, I doubt that I have anything substantial to say on the subject of pragmatism that you haven't heard a couple dozen times before. Historiographically, Bloch's Historians Craft is my bible, John Dower is my idol, and "theory" makes me itch.)