Historians still consider the late Richard Hofstadter one of the great American historians of the 20th century. His voluminous output when he worked as a professor at Columbia continues to draw readers and researchers both inside and outside of academia. "The Age of Reform" is Hofstadter's analysis of Populism and Progressivism in American history, which the author defines as a period running roughly from 1890 to 1940. This historical treatment won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1956, although it is difficult at times to see why. If we accept the idea that historians should always strive to lift themselves above their own biases and personal backgrounds, we must conclude that Richard Hofstadter was little more than a prejudiced city dweller who sought to tar American rural movements with an overarching label of anti-Semitism. Fortunately, new work concerning the Populists is available, work that patently refutes many of this author's scurrilous claims.
The author claims that Populism sought to reaffirm the American agrarian lifestyle in an age of increasing industrialization and urbanization. He attacks what he refers to as the "agrarian myth," or the idea that the backbone of American society was the benevolent, hard working farmer; an idea once advocated by none other than Thomas Jefferson. Hofstadter scoffs at the Jeffersonian idea of democratic virtues imbued by working with the soil, going so far as to conclude that Populism, which was a political movement by farmers and their associates to challenge what they saw as hegemonic behavior directed against rural areas by the cities and governmental organs, was deeply and irrevocably devoted to anti-Semitism in its most virulent strains. "The Age of Reform" cites Populist leaders Mary Lease and Ignatius Donnelly as two of the more strident proponents of rural anti-Jewish discontent.
While it is obvious that there was an element of anti-Semitism swirling through parts of the Populist movement, this animosity in no way formed the foundation of rural discontent. Farmers' concerns encompassed a host of disturbing issues, including railroads, the banking industry, corruption in politics, and moral values. Hofstadter commits a grave error in claiming that racial motives constituted the sublime principle for the millions of farmers who harbored a beef with the political system. Author Peter Novick, in his superb treatment of American historians, unearthed a letter proving that Hofstadter admitted to greatly exaggerating his claims about anti-Semitism among America's rural population. If one takes this claim to its logical, and disturbing, conclusion, the author of "The Age of Reform" essentially misrepresented his evidence in order to support a theory. That this is an egregious crime worthy of professional exile has had little effect on the endless accolades accorded Richard Hofstadter over the years. If lesser mortals were to commit such an indiscretion, they would find themselves drummed out of the discipline with great haste.
The second part of this book concerns Progressivism. According to Hofstadter, the concern of the progressives didn't involve a disbelief in the system of American society and government, but rather their position in a world increasingly fraught with the tectonic changes of industrialism. Specifically, Progressive initiatives involved status, as diverse sections of the populace attempted to find a new role in a changing country. As an example, the author refers to the clergy as one of these classes threatened with change. In an increasingly secularized culture, and one in which social scientists and the industrialists rose to undreamt of heights in social influence, those who worked for the churches lost considerable clout. Those men of the cloth wise to the changes in America embraced the reform minded social gospel in order to regain influence over the masses. In short, the changes in American society during the turn of the century led to a restructuring among all classes, not merely the working class or farmers. When a response to industrialism became necessary, everybody responded to it in some manner in an attempt to preserve their social station.
In a way, I understand Hofstadter's concern about the dangers of mass political movements. Look at the author's ethnic background; he was a Jewish-American who worked closely with other Jewish-American scholars in post-WWII America. What Jew wouldn't look for the seeds of an anti-Semitic basis in any political movements with Hitler's final solution still looming large in the popular mind? Populism in its expressions never resembled the scenes in "Triumph of the Will," but even a slender reed of anti-Jewish thought amongst the few was enough to set off alarm bells in the minds of Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, and others. "The Age of Reform" contributes an explanation of one facet of American Populism, but fails to convince me that anti-Jewish sentiment was the driving force of the movement. Hofstadter and company saw brown shirts instead of bib overalls, Nordic warriors instead of the Joads.
All is not lost with Richard Hofstadter, as there is plenty here and in his other works that sparkle with his easy prose style and all-encompassing eye for detail. One of the things I love about this author is how he discusses these obscure writings from various historical figures. In "The Age of Reform," Hofstadter discusses in some depth Ignatius Donnelly's apocalyptic novel "Caesar's Column," a discussion that made me instantly want to procure a copy. His observations on such literary obscurities are always a lot of fun, inspiring the reader to investigate these topics further. In short, when one reads Hofstadter, don't always take his word as gospel just because historians continue to adore him. "The Age of Reform" is an important work on Populism and Progressivism, but it certainly isn't the final analysis on these fascinating subjects.