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Richard Hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter, historian at Columbia University, was a prolific writer and commentator on the Gilded Age and Progressive Eras, a founding member of the "Consensus School" of American history, and a scathing critic of the conservatism of his day.

Over the course of his too-brief life, Hofstadter penned numerous thought-provoking works, including The American Political Tradition, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR and Social Darwinism in America. The book of his I encountered first, during my undergraduate days, was The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. In this slim volume, Hofstafter traced the roots of McCarthyism to our nation's inception, arguing that political assassination by invoking nativist paranoia has been "a recessive gene in the American character" (a phrase, strangely enough, coined by Phil Gramm) since the days of the Mayflower. As in much of his work, Hofstadter's essay was perhaps short on historical evidence, but long on critical analysis and captivating prose. His conceptualization of conservatism here (as fundamentally irrational), as with his view of progressivism as middle-class "status anxiety"in The Age of Reform, still loom large in the American mind almost a half-century later. Indeed, today's historians often find themselves grappling with Hofstadter's succinct and compelling interpretations, even when much of the evidence they originally relied upon has since been disproved.

Besides this historical continuum of McCarthyists, Redbaiters, Klan members, Know-nothings, and religious zealots, Hofstadter offers several other insightful essays in The Paranoid Style, including writings on the eventual fate of the once monolithic Free Silver and antitrust movements. Perhaps most intriguing of the "other" essays in the book to me in my fin-de-millennium college years was "Cuba, the Phillipines, and Manifest Destiny," in which Hofstadter described the atmosphere of anxious irrationality that propelled America to imperialism in the 1890's. His depiction of a "psychic crisis" afflicting the US, due to the close of the frontier, the rise of robber barons, and the panic of 1893, seemed to illuminate much about America a century later, when Perotistas had replaced Populists, Bill Gates played J.P. Morgan, and Louis Farrakhan suggested a racial future as separatist as that in Booker T. Washington's 1895 Atlanta Compromise. (And this was before Karl Rove and George W. Bush began playing Mark Hanna and William McKinley respectively, right down to holding another "splendid little war.")

In sum, while he may not be the best writer to go to for sheer historical detail, Richard Hofstadter shrewdly synthesized complex historiographic topics and fearlessly extrapolated from previous times to explain his present. In keeping his eye on the big picture, he has acquired a contemporary relevance that goes far beyond many of his peers and has provided an intriguing example for bridging the divide between academic and popular history.

Off to Hofstadter.

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