A One-Man Think Tank

Richard Hofstadter
An Intellectual Biography
David S. Brown
University of Chicago Press, $27.50, 282 pp. 


History is one of the few scholarly pursuits that garners popular attention. Among the ranks of its practitioners are bestselling authors with fans who avidly follow their careers—cheering the latest long ball struck by David McCullough, for instance, or the comeback of Doris Kearns Goodwin following her plagiarism mishap. Unfortunately, popular treatments of history often disappoint. In order to swim in the mainstream, mass-market narratives tend to adopt a History Channel approach that blurs the boundary with entertainment, turning history into a lurid parade of conspiracy theories and ghosts haunting old western mining towns.

Things weren’t this way just forty years ago, when Richard Hofstadter was one of America’s most popular historians. A public intellectual “committed to history as a literary art,” as David S. Brown writes in his new biography, Hofstadter penned best-selling books that closely examined America’s political culture, offering social criticism and historical exploration in equal measure while endeavoring to prompt national self-scrutiny. More than three and a half decades after his early death in 1970 (of leukemia, at age fifty-four), Hofstadter...

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About the Author

Kevin Mattson is the author (most recently) of When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (Routledge).