U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lawrence Goodwyn

In the middle of the day, news arrived from Duke University that the historian Lawrence Goodwyn had passed away yesterday, September 29.  I immediately began to compose a complicated post on Goodwyn that was also going to touch on the historiography of populism, Richard Hofstadter, and the divergent fates of intellectual and social history in the 1970s.  But the task I set myself proved too complicated, at least on short notice. So I’ll provide a sort of summary version. 

At the time of its publication in 1976, Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise was the first book-length study of Populism since John D. Hicks’s The Populist Revolt, a classic of the progressive school of historiography that had first appeared in 1931. More immediately, Goodwyn’s work challenged Richard Hofstadter’s suggestion in The Age of Reform (1955) that the Populists were a retrograde movement, driven largely by status anxieties. Hofstadter’s argument about the Populists was part of his much broader challenge to what he saw as the economic determinism of the progressive school. Even in 1955, Hofstadter’s argument was controversial and seen by some (including C. Vann Woodward, who greatly admired Age of Reform) as a kind of over-correction to Hicks.[1]  But it would take Goodwyn, who had covered the Civil Rights Movement as a reporter for the Texas Observer in the early 1960s before becoming an historian, to entirely supersede Hofstadter on Populism.  If Hicks tended to economic determinism and Hofstadter to (often ungenerous) readings of Populist rhetoric, Goodwyn wrote about the Populists sympathetically from the point of movement building.  He was the perfect person to take such an approach to his topic. And the book – as well as its abridged version The Populist Moment – revolutionized the study of Populism.

Certainly when I read about the Populists in the graduate survey in the late 1980s, there was no question who had the better of this argument.  Indeed, it took me years to overcome my prejudices against Hofstadter, who I’ve since come to greatly value (if not so much on the issue of Populism).  Of course, by the time I was in graduate school, social history had crested and receded a bit (if not so much in Goodwyn’s home base of Duke, which stayed true to the cause for years to come).  In my program, at least, it was fairly easy to feel a sense of relief that the discipline had moved on from some of the trends of the preceding decade (I never longed to do a cliometric study of the penetration of the market in yet another medium-size nineteenth-century city). But Goodwyn’s work was extraordinarily vibrant. Democratic Promise was an instant classic and it remains a classic today.  When I first came to teach populism in a graduate seminar almost two decades later, there was no question that his work would be front-and-center.

With Lawrence Goodwyn’s passing, the field has lost a truly great historian whose voice and approach to history embodied much of what was best and most distinctive about his generation of historians.

[1] David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Chapter 5 deals at great length with the reception of Age of Reform.  On Hofstadter’s intentions and the reception of his view of Populism, see also Robert M. Collins, “The Originality Trap: Richard Hofstadter on Populism,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Jun., 1989), pp. 150-167 (JSTOR link).