- Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Random House USA Inc (9 Aug. 1988)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0394700953
- ISBN-13: 978-0394700953
- Product Dimensions: 12.1 x 1.9 x 18.2 cm
- Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 144,512 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. Mass Market Paperback – 9 Aug 1988
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"Professor Hofstadter has written a superb book ... The Age of Reform entitles Hofstadter to rank with C. Vann Woodward as a master of creative synthesis, as an interpreter of the past who can add to cold data an emphatic insight that transforms history from a book of the dead into a chronicle of life."-- American Political Science Review
" Professor Hofstadter has written a superb book ... The Age of Reform entitles Hofstadter to rank with C. Vann Woodward as a master of creative synthesis, as an interpreter of the past who can add to cold data an emphatic insight that transforms history from a book of the dead into a chronicle of life." -- American Political Science Review
From the Inside Flap
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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Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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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.
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.
The book is quite relevant today because many pundits compare the politics and idelolgy of today led by left of center technocrats (Bill Clinton) who wish to control big business to a similar impulse of the turn of the century by Progressives. (teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson).
A good companion to this Book is Eric Foner's "The Story of American Freedom" which also traces the history of American ideologcal changes over the years. Foner also studied under Hofstdter at Columbia.