For the ages For Hofstadter, pictured here in 1946, anti-intellectualism was an unavoidable part of a democratic society. (Erich Hartmann / Magnum Photos)

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life doesn’t seem like a catchy title, but, more than 50 years on, it has demonstrated a peculiar staying power: When somebody mentions “anti-intellectualism,” Richard Hofstadter’s book usually comes to mind as the place where the problem was defined. That may be every author’s dream, but for purposes of understanding the book it is also perilous. If you haven’t read the book—which is forgivable; it’s very long and dense—then you may assume that Hofstadter argues that anti-intellectualism is a threat to the authentic best in the American tradition, and that he thinks of it as a problem that can be solved, so that the country can have the flourishing intellectual culture and enriched public life it deserves. Not true.

In case you don’t know him, Hofstadter was one of the very greatest American historians, and also, in his heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the leading public intellectuals. Most academic writers cannot achieve the trifecta of scholarly importance, popularity outside the academy, and unquestioned intellectual integrity. Hofstadter did. He was born in 1916, and as a young man he had the standard flirtation with Communism of intellectuals of his generation. He briefly joined the Communist Party USA. By the time Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published (1963), he was a mainstream liberal, not a radical. In the final pages in the book he seems to catch a whiff of the coming of the student radicalism of the sixties, and he doesn’t like it. After the 1968 student strike at Columbia University, his academic home, he disliked it intensely. It isn’t clear where Hofstadter would have wound up politically, because he died in 1970, at the age of 54.

He left behind an astonishingly large and broad body of work. Somewhere or other he wrote about nearly every period in American history. He was able to do this partly because he didn’t do much of the historical equivalent of a journalist’s original reporting—slogging through primary records and documents in archives. Instead, his research was mainly done by reading published works, which he seems to have done so copiously and with such deep understanding that the entirety of American intellectual history was stored in some instantly accessible place inside his head.

To Hofstadter, intellectualism is not at all the same as intelligence. It is a distinctive habit of mind and thought that actually forbids the kind of complete self-assurance we often associate with very smart people.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published in the sixties, but before “the sixties” as we understand the term were in full swing; it’s more usefully understood as a product of the fifties. In 1952, Partisan Review, then the most prestigious and influential American intellectual magazine, published a world-rocking (among intellectuals) series of essays under the title “Our Country and Our Culture.” During the first half of the 20th century, American intellectuals had been mainly dissenters and critics. Whether it was a conservative purveyor of cultural bombast like H.L. Mencken, a liberal chronicler of the vapidity of Midwestern life like Sinclair Lewis, or a radical critic of capitalism and business like Thorstein Veblen—these are three of hundreds of possible examples—there was a unifying tone of disapproval of mainstream American life in most intellectual and artistic production. Many American writers and artists expatriated themselves. (A word on terminology: Some intellectuals are journalists, and some journalists are intellectuals, but either way the subcategory is a minority of the larger category. The kind of boosterism that most intellectuals abhorred was a dominant strain in the commercial journalism of the first half of the 20th century.)

So it was big news when the editors of Partisan Review announced that “For better or for worse, most writers no longer accept alienation as the artist’s fate in America; on the contrary, they want very much to be a part of American life.” The context was that the United States had led a successful effort to rid the world of an existential menace. Europe, which American intellectuals traditionally preferred to their own country, lay in ruins. It was no longer possible for an honest thinking person to believe in Communism as a superior alternative to our own system, however flawed it was. America was prosperous, free, and vibrant—even, much of the time, as regards scholars and artists. It was beginning to seem silly for intellectuals to continue portraying the national project in the customary dark hues.

Nicholas Lemann is Pulitzer-Moore Professor of Journalism at Columbia, and a staff writer for The New Yorker

This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "The American way."