Neglected Book

Hofstadter, Richard, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968).

In my opinion, this is the most polished, most convincing book that one of the best historians of the U.S. ever wrote. But, for some reason, it has received little comment, at least as compared with The American Political Tradition, The Age of Reform, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and even The Idea of a Party System. At any rate, this is far more than an intellectual history or a deeply reflective work of historiography. Hofstadter evaluates the conceptions and self-conceptions of the scholars who shaped his own first writings as a Marxian historian -- and and, in so doing, has original and always illuminating things to say about all the subjects they sought to explain: the rise of democracy, the influence of the frontier, the role of capitalism, etc., etc. He also manages something very difficult yet essential for any historian evaluating past scholarship of consequence: he is both is both extraordinarily empathetic and intensely critical. And, as always, Hofstadter writes with a lucidity and elegance superior to that of any historian of his generation-- or ours. He concludes with a sober observation about what even a brilliant intellectual can or, perhaps, should accomplish: "At their best, historians have gone to the past with some passionate concern for the future; and somehow...they have produced from the inner tensions of their minds an equipoise that enables them to superimpose upon their commitment a measure of detachment about the past, even to reconcile themselves to having knowledge without power."

Recommended by Michael Kazin, Georgetown University

I teach and write about American politics and social movements. My books include Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era, The Populist Persuasion: An American History, and (with Maurice Isserman), America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. I'm currently writing a study of William Jennings Bryan and his followers.