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The Age of Reform
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61 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2000
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.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2002
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.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 1998
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
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47 of 60 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon July 14, 2003
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.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 1999
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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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2007
At one time I used to believe that the Progressive Era in America, roughly from 1900- 1920, was the real source of post World War II ideas of social progress such as Truman's Fair Deal, Kennedy's New Frontier and Johnson's Great Society. Previously I had placed those ideas on the doorstep of Franklin Roosevelt. Ah, but those were the silly days of my youth when I believed that the Democratic Party could be pushed to the left and made the equivalent of a European social-democratic organization responsible to its working class base. I now believe that the progressive period is decisive but for a different reason, that is, its role in sucking up the leftist political landscape and preventing a hard core working class-centered socialist party from crystallizing in this country.

For those, like myself, who look hard for antecedents, this is important to an understanding of why today, in face of incredible provocations by the two major political parties we have no independent class party of the working people. Thus, a look at the period becomes essential for understanding the malaise that we find ourselves today. A good place to start, and I would emphasize the word start since the book originally took form in the 1950's, is Professor Hofstadter's book on the period. While one does not have to be sympathetic to his generally pro-Progressive tilt this little book, complete with important footnoted source references, gives a very good outline of the personalities, issues and sociological trends that broke the back of fight for an independent mass socialist party in the period.

Ironically in Europe, in the period under discussion, large, well-organized class-conscious labor parties some of them, like the Bolsheviks in Russia even revolutionary were rearing there heads. Although a relatively small, loosely organized, and programmatically amorphous Socialist Party did emerge in the United States at this time it was definitely (and occasionally, by choice) subordinated to the Progressive movement. Unless one is eternally committed to the political strategy of the `popular front', that is multi-class organizations based on the lowest common denominator policies in order to achieve social change this was a very badly missed opportunity by socialists.

Hofstadter makes the interesting, and basically true, point that the whirlwind Populist movement that sprang out of the farms of the American prairie in the early 1890's and embraced Free Silver and Bryan in 1896 was fundamentally hostile to the urban classes and particularly to the working class. I have argued elsewhere that the working class had no interest in the inflationary silver coinage issue. Moreover the populist movement, except in the South where it had the potential of driving a wedge into the race question, was the last gasp effort of the small capitalist family farmer in the face of the victory of mass industrialization and the rise of finance capital. I would however, argue that as late as 1896 it was still possible that the bedeviled populist movement could have been an auxiliary to an urban-based workers party. With the rise of the middle class Progressive movement such a possibility was derailed.

The rise of the Progressive movement is the strongest part of this book. Hofstadter having staked out his own personal political philosophy under the aegis of that movement has many interesting things to say about it. The fundamental driving force behind this movement was the fact of ruthless industrialization and the reaction to it by those who either had previously benefited from society, the classic "Mugwumps", or were being driven under by ` the captains of industry'. Particularly well done are the analysis of the rise of the professoriat, the increase in the number of cities and their size and with it the creation of new political organizations, the change in the status of the clergy and the free professions, immigration (that round of it any way) and the changing mores which broke down the prevailing ideology.

While one may, as the writer does, disagree with the depth of the positive effects that the various pieces of legislation that the Progressives were able to get passed one can nevertheless see that a different class axis would have been necessaryin order to make fundamental changes. Thus, although Hofstatder will not be you last place to look in understanding the evolution, such as it is, of American society for this crucial period in working class history it certainly should be your first.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2006
Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) was a prolific writer and commentator on the Gilded Age and Progressive Eras, a founding member of the "Consensus School" of American history, and a scathing critic of the conservatism of his day. Often portrayed, in his day and since, as the "finest and also most humane historical intelligence of our generation", Hofstadter was one of the most distinguished historians of the twentieth century . Over the course of his too brief life, Hofstadter the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University, was the author of several groundbreaking books including, `The Age of Reform (1955) and Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), both of which won the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction . A vigorous champion of the liberal politics that emerged from the New Deal, Hofstadter fought public campaigns against liberalism's most dynamic opponents from McCarthy in the 1950s to Barry Goldwater and the Sun Belt Conservatives in the 1960s. His distaste of the extreme politics of post war America, expressed in his books, essays and public lectures, marked him as one of the nation's most important and prolific public intellectuals. The range of his interests was unusual, extending from the earliest phases of the American Experience through to the concerns of his day. A `specialist' he was not, a master of the subjects he covered he was; which was widely acknowledged and respected. Hofstadter's principle theme of the importance of ideas in history, more precisely the relation between the way people behaved, in politics and other realms of effort, and the use they made of their mind, along with the idea that history is akin to literature, had an immense impact on his students, colleagues and the entire academic world. Extremely active, Hofstadter was continuously embarking on new thought provoking work right up to his death, caused by leukaemia on October 24, 1970, which caught him, as he himself had written of one of his favourite politicians many years before very much "in the midst of things" .

Hofstadter's "The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR" played a significant role in establishing his influence and reputation. The book received critical acclaim when published in 1955 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. "The Age of Reform" many are inclined to agree, even its detractors of which are many "is the most influential book ever published on the history of twentieth century America" . This landmark book in American political thought is a study of American political culture from the Populist Movement of the 1890s through the Progressive Era ending with the New Deal of the 1930s. "The Age of Reform" is an evaluation of the reform associations from Bryan to F.D.R., and analyses the ideas of each participant, rather than the legislative or political philosophies, and does not regurgitate the number of details of each reform movement. Hofstadter's analysis of the reformations in a modern perspective and the definitions between each of them, created a unique and vastly influential contribution, which has been seen as not only his most original and influential book but one that solidified Hofstadter as one of the great historians of his time .

[Part of the above review is taken from; "An Enduring Influence: Richard Hofstadter and The Age of Reform" by Alexander Rayden.

© 2005 Alexander Rayden, All Rights Reserved]
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2000
Hofstadter was the pre-eminent historian of the middle of hte century and this is his most enduring and still widely read book. It discusses the ideological strands and impulses that went into the Populist Progressive and later new deal movements. This is the history of ideas not events. Although his view of the progressive era has held up well, demeans the POpulsits as backwards utopians who dreamed for a Jeffersonian existence that never really was and was certainly unrealistic by the 1890s. He also sees them as xenophobic and anti-semetic. Much new historical work on the Populsits has been done since the 1950's which paints them in a better light. Most noteably Lawrence Goodwyn's "The Populist Moment" sees the movement as a kind of conciousness raising exercise whic empowered its members.
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2011
Although there are many facets of this book worth mentioning, I feel that Hofstadter's analysis of the evolution of the Agrarian myth to be most interesting.
Also, Hofstadter's "The Age of Reform" is (in my opinion) extremely broad and philosophical in context. Written in 1955, this Pulitzer Prize winning work traces the development of Populism and the beginnings of Progressivism from the 1890's to the rise of WWI. However, this book is in my opinion "primarily a study of political thinking and of political moods" and, therefore, suffers from a major weaknesses. Put simply Hofstadter's book is largely devoid of primary regional sources, and his work pays lip service to the crucial values and strategies of key Populist leaders. I recommend Lawrence Goodwyn's account over Hofstadter for this reason...otherwise, a well written and intellectual achievement...worth a look.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2015
History is complicated. That is one thing that one takes from this magnificent piece of American history. We tend to want to place historical movements in simple terms, good guys vs. bad guys. Hofstadter shows that over the course of fifty years of immense change (1890-1940 roughly), there were many crosscurrents. Urbanization, immigration, the growth of the corporation, changes in professions like law and journalism, all served to wreak tremendous influences on American politics. Some helped reform, some impeded it, most did both.

It is easy to cast this work as rural-bashing and Hofstatdter does dispel the agrarian myth, the harkening back inn the American narrative to a time and culture that never really existed ("In truth we may well sympathize with the populists and with those who share their need to believe that somewhere in the American past there was a golden age whose life was far better than our own"). But the work is far more subtle than simply casting rural yokels and William Jennings Bryan as foils to the inevitable progression of American life.

In that way, the book still says a lot about politics today. The Tea Party movement has echoes of the populist movement a century before. Both were impelled by a fear of change and what were cast by opportunistic politicians as attacks on the American way of life (that false narrative again). Now there is a big government to rail against but it is not really that different than the populists calling for silver. And the racial and cultural undertones remain.

The question is will a progressive movement now succeed where the Tea Party has failed. Hofstadter points out that while progressive achieved few of their aims (and he calls those aims into question) they did a lot to make life of the working class better. Some of that was done by standing on the shoulders of the populists. Can the (largely rural) popular discontent reflected by the Tea Party be co-opted by the 99% movement (largely urban) to lead to real reforms for the information age?
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