Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Recent reading: Richard Hofstadter, An Intellectual Biography

I recently read Richard Hofstadter--An Intellectual Biography by David Brown.  For some reason I didn't feel like blogging it.  But a few takeaway observations:

  1. A few months ago I was aghast that anybody would call Hofstadter a smug liberal.  In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life he displayed nothing but contempt for a certain type of progressive posing!  However, after reading more about his views, writings, and political activity (such as it was) in the 50's and 60's I now admit that he was a creature of a certain liberal consensus, and while he had no use for fluffy progressives (including student protesters) he clearly had a disdainful attitude toward conservative detractors from a centre-left consenus.
  2. Perhaps Hofstadter's worst transgression was to see the defeat of Adlai Stevenson by Dwight Eisenhower as the triumph of Mencken's "booboisie."  Whatever might be said in favor of Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower was a highly accomplished man who had commanded millions of people in one of the most logistically complicated acts ever undertaken by the US government.  If that isn't a plausible resume for a Presidential contender, what is?
  3. Hofstadter started college a year early, married the daughter of a doctor, and loved doing impressions.  JUST LIKE ME!!!11!!!! 
  4. The author's description of his undergraduate college (University of Buffalo, now SUNY Buffalo) is absolutely fascinating.  The university started as a med school, added an undergraduate college of arts and sciences much later, and then (according to the author) was pushed to become a place of serious theoretical study as the children of immigrants started to pour in.  I cannot imagine a university today saying "We are getting more immigrants so we are going to up our academic game."  Even though that would actually be the right course of action when serving the disadvantaged, the Academy of today would go full-on bleeding heart, necessitating intervention from the heart surgeons of the med school.  
  5. Hofstadter had no patience for hypotheses of America's authentic past being rooted in the now-closed frontier (e.g. Turner).  To Hofstadter, the true present, future, and character of America was in the diverse cities of the east coast.  Being a descendant of people who came here to farm (in some branches of my family) and also people who came here to work in cities (other branches) I don't see it as an either/or.  I think it's a mistake to dismiss the impact of a few centuries of expansion on the national character; we need a historical narrative that balances the many different reasons that people came here.  OTOH, I fully endorse the idea of America as a melting pot, and I reject the notion that small towns are the "Real America."
All in all, I found reading about my idol to be a bit less inspirational than I thought it would be.

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