Anti-Intellectualism in American Life
Most scholarly books we read for the information or insight they contain. But some we return to simply for the pleasure of the author’s company. For instance, I pick up Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism from time to time, just to refresh myself with its elegance and clarity. Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography of novelist Georgette Heyer, another favorite, seems to me a model of delicacy, insight, and wit. I feel almost learned every time I dip into Marcia Colish’s Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Traditionor the historical essays of Hugh Trevor-Roper.
In this elite company I place Richard Hofstadter’s wide-ranging cultural history, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, recipient of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for history. Its great theme — our nation’s longstanding “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it” — allows the late Columbia professor to range from the Puritans and the Founding Fathers to the McCarthy hearings, even touching briefly on the early days of the Kennedy administration. But given its publication date, the book doesn’t treat the later 1960s, the heyday of student activism and hippiedom, both of which were to appall Hofstadter, an old-time lefty, because of their irrationality, anarchical antics, and unfocused utopianism. Sadly, this productive, and sometimes polemical, historian — his other work includes The American Political Tradition (1948) and the famous title essay of The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) — died at age fifty-four, from leukemia, in 1970.
Hofstadter’s urbane and occasionally ironic style, coupled with a lively, invigorating diction, makes Anti-Intellectualism in American Life a provocation and a delight: “I have no desire to encourage the self-pity to which intellectuals are sometimes prone by suggesting that they have been vessels of pure virtue set down in Babylon.” In fact, he merely hopes to “trace some of the social movements in our history in which intellect has been dissevered from its co-ordinate place among the human virtues and assigned the position of a special kind of vice.”