Commonplace Book #162

Niebuhrian ideas were attracting intellectuals in many fields, but [The] Irony [of American History] had a special impact on historians of the United States. Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition (1948) and other works had already played havoc with the “progressive” model dominant in the previous generation of Charles Beard and V.L. Parrington. For them the American experience had been shaped above all by a perennial battle between the popular forces of enlightenment and the privileged protectors of tradition; historical writing was an implicit call to arms. Hofstadter’s book exploded those categories by demonstrating how conservative many liberal heroes had been, and how deeply rooted the capitalist consensus had been among all social groups. Niebuhr’s Irony put Hofstadter’s post-progressive perspective on a firmer philosophical foundation and showed that the ironic stance could itself supply a kind of faith for the future. A somber faith, to be sure, as Lionel Trilling had already indicated in The Middle of the Journey (1947). Intellectual work was no longer to be a celebration of the people’s unbounded potential but a search for paradoxes, a statement of the tragic limits of human life. Within those limits human beings occasionally achieved beauty, excellence, responsibility, but always under the pressure of evil, treachery, despair. History was not a progressive march interrupted by temporary setbacks, but a drama of human weakness and strength. Many historians who came of age during the depression or Second World War–Perry Miller, C. Vann Woodward, Henry May, and David Brion Davis among others–were inspired by Niebuhr’s vision.

Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, 246-47.