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The Life of the Mind: An Intellectual Biography of Richard Hofstadter



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Snodgrass, Andrew Ronald 


Despite his death in 1970, Richard Hofstadter’s work continues to have an enduring influence in American political culture. Yet despite the continued and frequent use of his interpretations in public discourse, his reputation within historical scholarship remains, to a large degree, shaped by perceptions that were formed towards the end of his career. The narrative pervades of Hofstadter as the archetypal New York intellectual who rejected his youthful radicalism for political conservatism which, in turn, shaped his consensus vision of the past. These assessments reflect the biographical tendency to read a life and career backwards. From such a vantage point, Hofstadter’s work is viewed through the prism of his perceived final position. My dissertation challenges the accepted narrative by considering his writing in the context of the period of time in which it was written. In doing so, it is evident that his work belies attempts to reduce his scholarship to reflections of a shifting political standpoint. Whilst it is undoubted that Hofstadter’s historical and political view changed through time, there was a remarkable consistency to his thought. Throughout his career, his writing and lectures were suffused with a sense of the contingency of truth. It was the search for new uncertainties rather than the capture of truth which was central to his work. It was also fundamental to his politics. The sense of ambiguity and complexity that pervaded Hofstadter’s writing and informed his political viewpoints was, I argue, a reflection of personal temperament. Naturally shy, his early correspondence shows a marked diffidence and ambivalence in the face of personal and political choice. The writing of history not only reflected this ambivalence but provided a means of working though it and of determining his own intellectual and political position. In this respect, Hofstadter provides his own self-narrative within his work. It is Hofstadter’s own voice that provides the direction for my study. Perhaps more importantly, it is a voice that continues to provide instruction for those who would seek a role for the historian at the centre of the intellectual and political life of the nation.





Preston, Andrew


Historiography, Consensus, Liberalism, United States, Marxism, Intellectual, Biography


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge