Whenever the writings of the historian Richard Hofstadter come up for discussion, the adjective “elegant” also seems always to put in an appearance. And rightly so. It would be hard to think of an important historian of American life whose prose was more consistently appealing and charming, more urbane and literarily accomplished, more pleasing and accessible to the intelligent general reader, and yet at the same time more intellectually sophisticated, than his. It would be even harder to think of anyone active in the field today who compares with him in these respects.

In that regard, he is not only unusual, but seems almost a period piece, a product of a bygone era. When I was a graduate student in history in the 1980s, Hofstadter was still being read here and there, but he was never, ever being held up to us as an example to be imitated. I thought, and still think, this was a shame. We stand in greater need than ever of historians who respect the public enough to write for it, and to it, and not merely for one another. But that is not a quality that has been much encouraged in graduate study during the past three decades.

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We probably will not see Hofstadter’s like again. His success was partly the product of a special moment, and a set of unusual and unrepeatable circumstances. His name and work are unimaginable apart

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