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The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. [Mass Market Paperback]

Richard Hofstadter
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

9 Aug 1988 Vintage
This book is a landmark in American political thought. It examines the passion for progress and reform that colored the entire period from 1890 to 1940 -- with startling and stimulating results. it searches out the moral and emotional motives of the reformers the myths and dreams in which they believed, and the realities with which they had to compromise.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

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The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. + Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform
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Product details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Random House USA Inc (9 Aug 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394700953
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394700953
  • Product Dimensions: 18.5 x 11.2 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 23,675 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Mass Market Paperback
This book deserves its status as a classic: written more than 55 years ago, it remains highly relevant to today, not just in his critique of the left-leaning from 1890s to the end of the New Deal, but in his analysis of the dynamics of popular movements regardless of their beliefs. Though the book is written is a somewhat staid academic style, the content is utterly fascinating, original, and hard-edged. It is a dazzling synthesis that examines the vanishing yeoman farmer, womens' rights, industrialization and urbanization, and the adaptation of the political parties to the volcanic upheavals that these forces unleashed.

Hofstadter begins with a definition of populism: it originated with a romanticised notion of the independent semi-autarkic farm, which was disappearing as businessmen in the distant growing cities commoditized their produce, pushing wages down to the point that they could barely make a living. The farmers were isolated, bound to small communities, and almost all protestant fundamentalists living by unforgiving moral codes. As Hofstadter demonstrates, their ideas were unrealistic, even utopian, to the point that the scorn of city dwellers doomed their movement to the sidelines. He also points out the contradictions between their beliefs and actions: not only were most farmers becoming businessmen themselves, but their christianity reinforced (rather than mitigated) their racism, xenophobia, and narrowness of mind. It is a devastating critique, in particular because they later became the seedbed of the Ku Klux Klan (which Hofstadter examines at length). With a large part of their purpose seeking to hold back modernism, these men were a far cry from the spontaneous democratic uprising that some liberals like to portray in popular books.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Me like book 23 Aug 1999
By A Customer
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Richard Hostadter is a wonderful historian who paints with broad yet nimble strokes. He knows the details but does not suffocate the reader with them. His forte is grasping the fundamental beliefs and conditions that guide American political and social movements. Here he shows how "liberal" and "conservative" impulses interwined in the reform movements of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. I was especially intrigued with his argument about the myth of the idealized past, and how that myth becomes increasingly stronger even as it moves further away from the reality (take, for example, the image of 1950s small-town America in today's culture). If you believe, as I do, that the era in which we live has strong similarities to the American situation at the last turn of the century, then you will no doubt find this book valuable.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
59 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An indispensable and enduring work 1 May 2000
By Tyler Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
It's not every book that can change one's thinking about a political movement and a period in history, but Hofstadter's book did just that for me when I first read it many years ago. It's an incisive critique of the populist and progressive movements that sprang up in the last quarter of the 19th century and exerted strong influence on American politics until the onset of World War I. But Hofstadter's great achievement is that he sets both these movements in historical perspective, showing us that no movement flowers without roots.
Hofstadter is at his best in revealing that the populist movement played -- and preyed -- on the longing of Americans for a pastoral, agrarian past that was ironically little more than myth by the end of Reconstruction. In an increasingly industrial, urban America, the populists were able to set themselves up as downtrodden victims of various villians, chief among them the railroads and the banks.
Yet Hofstadter convincingly argues that the farmers of the West were eager to become businessmen in the boom years following the Civil War, when land and capital were cheap. It was not until they were battered by the economic slumps that are an inevitable part of a market economy that the agrarian movement began demanding government intervention to reign in capital and portraying agriculture as especially worthy of special attention.
The populist's appeal to the little man, dwarfed by powers beyond his control, played well in some segments of the U.S., but Hofstadter portrays a darker side of populism, exposing its anti-foreign and anti-Semitic leanings. Reading about the populist's railings against foreigners and their dark hints of conspiracy by vast economic and political powers, I heard echoes of the speeches of Pat Buchanan.
As for the progressives, the urban reformers who overlapped to some extent with the populists, Hofstadter cogently points out that this middle class movement was in large part a reaction to the growing influence of immigrants in large American cities. The middle class, he argues, was feeling squeezed between the waves of immigrants, who were increasingly catered to by machine politicians, and the new and enormously rich industrial class. The progressive movement was an attempt to wrest back some measure of political strength by undercutting the power of the bosses with "good government" and to reign in the economic clout of the industrialists through reform.
This is required reading for the student of American history. We have produced few historians who match the stature and achievement of Hofstadter, and this book is one of his best.
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very well written but historically unjust 24 Feb 2002
By John Lee - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Hofstadter ranks with Bancroft, Beard, and Tuckman as one of the great scholars of American history. AGE OF REFORM definitely shows why; his scholarly, permeating style impresses his words into your mind, changing both your scope and sense of American history. In this book, he tracks various reformist groups that shaped America, starting with the Populists of the late 19th century and ending with the New Deal reforms of FDR.
Hofstadter's thoughts on the early 20th century Progressives and New Dealers conform with the writings of most other historians. It is Hofstadter's section on the Populists that has always generated the most controversy, both in the past and still today. In the first third of the book, Hofstadter writes of the American "agrarian myth" and how the Populist farmers sought the "lost agrarian ideals" of Jefferson and Jackson. He emphasizes how the Populists were basically reactionary whiners who impetuously thought themselves deserving of some special privelage, simply because they were farmers, the supposed "All-American" profession. Hofstadter goes further by describing the Populists as jingoistic proto-facists. By use of effective documentation, he shows this "dark side" of Populism, with its demagogic rants against politicians, urbanites, Britons, Jews, and immigrants.
Although Hofstadter indeed is very effective in his writing and documentation, he fails in the aspect of fair historical analysis. When one reads AGE OF REFORM, one should always remember the Populists from a broader perspective than Hofstadter's biased urban views. In truth, the Populists are one of American history's unfortunate losers; like the Loyalists and Native Americans, the Populists failed in almost all their immediate objectives; their leaders, like William Jennings Bryan and Tom Watson, are best remembered as lost crusaders. They lost because they were simply ahead of their time; they were New Dealers in a time when the New Deal was ignored and not accepted. The Populists lost in their present because their reforms were meant for the future; thus, at least the future should appreciate and judge the past correctly. Although Hofstadter writes an enthralling historical work, his unjust view of the Populists should not be taken by modern readers as absolute truth.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars FROM RUGGED INDIVIDUALISM TO STATE WELFARE 6 Dec 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Richard Hosstadter was one of our most profound social commentators and it will be a long while before his equal comes along. In this book he highlights the rather surprising fact that Conservatives were the first to back the Progressive idea that replaced Populism. The Progressive mentality, with roots in the Protestant ethic felt the individual was responsible for improvement of "everything." It was an idea congenial to Teddy Roosevelt, who took it and ran with it, and it reached its culmination in Woodrow Wilson. As Hofstadter shows, Wilson led us into WWI with the idea that it was our responsibility to save civilization, rather than our self interested need to survive intact ourselves in a congenial economic milieu which would not have been likely if the Central Powers had won the war. The devastation and human wreckage wrought by the war brought home to Americans what they mistakenly considered the price of idealism (rather than the price of survival) and turned them toward a reaction that killed Progressivism. One result was the Flapper Era, reaction characteristic of general Eurphoria, undoubtedly sustained by prosperity. Hofstadter makes a remarkable case that explains how we got Prohibition and that, remarkably, it was tolerated by that era, He traces its development to a strange conjunction between a Progressive holdover, reaction against city loose morals and nativism. (Perhaps true, at least he makes a good case for the develpment of what is otherwise an inexplicable contradiction.) When the bubble busted in 1929 with the market crash followed by world depression, the stage had been set for acceptance of state reponsibility for human welfare, with roots going back rather surprisingly to Conservatives who first made a congenial environment for Progressive ideas on the notion that they were preserving individualism. This, of course, is ironic, since it was the Conservatives who had a hissie over the New Deal and FDR. Hofstadter also points out that major swings of national policy depend upon moods of the people at the time. Cycles exist. Unfortunately, he doesn't provide a formula for creating, sustaining of killing moods, probably because no one can. In any case he gives us hope that the mood we hate will pass away; for example PC which currently seems to threaten our basic notion of freedom will fly out the window someday, perhaps having served a good purpose for all of its arrogant intolerance of free discussion and conduct, especially in our colleges and universities. A derned good book to read in installments as I do, in a hot tub in the morning while I try to get my weary bones articulating. To balance Hofstadter try Albro Martin to whom Hofstadter's idea of acceptance of such things as government regulation of railroads (starting with the Hepburn Act) was anathema and actually came close to destroying them. They agree that TR's trustbusting was cosmetic, with Hofstadter seeing some good in it (the Northern Securites Case being the classic example to show that government was at least watching) and Martin pointing out that the severance of the Burlington, Northern Pacific and Great Northern from a trust status was replaced by what amounted to the same thing. It was so secretly done that even the employees of the combination didn't recognize the interlocking board control until 1972. As we know it is now fully accepted as the Bulington Northern Santa Fe. And what has this to do with The Age of Reform? Read the book and draw your own conclusions. Hofstadter admits that in the final analysis the Big Men that reform reacted against were running the show behind the scenes most of the time anyhow when the chips were down. Of course this is not a book for those who are into Harlequin Romances or even baseball unless you're George Will. Glenn G. Boyer
46 of 59 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hofstadter: Crusader Against the Populists 15 July 2003
By Jeffrey Leach - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
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.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Me like book 23 Aug 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Richard Hostadter is a wonderful historian who paints with broad yet nimble strokes. He knows the details but does not suffocate the reader with them. His forte is grasping the fundamental beliefs and conditions that guide American political and social movements. Here he shows how "liberal" and "conservative" impulses interwined in the reform movements of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. I was especially intrigued with his argument about the myth of the idealized past, and how that myth becomes increasingly stronger even as it moves further away from the reality (take, for example, the image of 1950s small-town America in today's culture). If you believe, as I do, that the era in which we live has strong similarities to the American situation at the last turn of the century, then you will no doubt find this book valuable.
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