Book World: Blue-collar intellectual in ‘Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher’
By Michael Dirda,
More than 60 years ago, a New York editor named Margaret Anderson received a manuscript entitled “Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.” The second paragraph of the preface announced its theme:
“All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance.
“All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.”
Being a trade editor, Anderson realized that “Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” wasn’t likely to jump onto any bestseller lists. So she suggested a new, punchier title, which was accepted by its author, the virtually unknown Eric Hoffer. Since then “The True Believer” has become a modern classic, a work periodically rediscovered to this day, most recently in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Eric Hoffer was, if anything, even more remarkable than his book. When “The True Believer” was published in 1951, he was a largely self-educated longshoremen, aged 50 or thereabouts (there is doubt about his actual birth date), a barrel-chested guy who earned his living by loading and unloading ships on the docks of San Francisco. Close up, Hoffer was genially round-faced, bald, with big hands, seldom going outside without a cloth cap on his head. He lived by himself in a single room, owned next to nothing except his work clothes, some writing supplies and a library card. When he spoke, he revealed a slight German accent and a marked tendency to grow excited about ideas.
In the museum world, there is a category called “outsider art,” that is, painting and sculpture created by untrained “folk” artists. Hoffer practiced what one might call “outsider philosophy.” He simply followed his own lights, his own intelligence.
As Tom Bethell’s fine critical biography, “Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher,” reminds us, Hoffer loved this country fiercely and was deeply proud to be an ordinary American workingman. Throughout his adult life, though, he devoured serious books, copied out favorite passages from his reading onto index cards, and thought hard about the nature of man as a social, political and religious being. By the time of his death in 1983, he had 11 titles to his credit, including “The Passionate State of Mind,” “The Ordeal of Change” and a “best-of” collection called “Between the Devil and the Dragon.”
While Hoffer excelled at the short essay and aphorism, he really shone in discussion: The veteran newscaster Eric Sevareid called his hour-long CBS interview with Hoffer “the greatest filmed monologue I had ever had anything to do with in all my years in television.” Still, this “longshoreman philosopher” was primarily a reactive thinker, usually developing his own train of thought by building on, or contradicting, observations from earlier writers. Bethell devotes an entire chapter to examples of Hoffer’s reading notes.
For instance, commenting on computer pioneer Charles Babbage’s remark, “I cannot remember a single completely happy day in my life,” Hoffer speculates about what makes us happy. “One thing I know beyond doubt. Had [Babbage] overheard someone he respected praise him highly it would have sweetened life for him for more than a day. We are starved for praise. It reconciles us with life. . . . Self-doubt is at the core of our being. We need people who by their attitude and words will convince us that we are not as bad as we think we are. Hence the vital role of judicious praise.”
Praise as the source of happiness? Most of us would have listed self-fulfillment or good works or family, but Hoffer avoids the familiar chestnuts, proffering instead a wholly unexpected insight that nonetheless rings true. It’s a gift he displays throughout his writing. In another note, he agrees with G.K. Chesterton that the artistic temperament is a disease that affects amateurs. But sometimes, he adds, even distinguished artists parrot the belief that “enthusiasm, inspiration and an eventful life are vital to the creative flow. Actually, they know better and act differently. They know that what creation needs is hard work and eventless routine.” On another page, Hoffer further stresses that “the writer creates to compensate himself for what he did not experience, for what he could not be.”
What was it that this blue-collar autodidact could not be? Bethell begins his book with a mystery. Almost no documentation exists about Hoffer before the mid 1930s, and no one seems to have known him as a boy or youth. His account of a childhood in New York, as the son of poor German immigrants, has proved unreliable and contradictory. Ophthalmologists judge his striking story about suddenly going blind for eight years, before recovering his sight at age 15, as problematic and unlikely. But, of course, blindness would account for the non-existence of school records for young Eric. While Bethell reserves judgment, he leaves the reader convinced that Hoffer probably entered this country illegally as a young man, perhaps from Germany.
Whatever his origins, by the 1930s Hoffer was a migrant farm worker in California. When exempted from the World War II draft (because of a hernia), he learned that the longshoremen needed men on the waterfront, and there he found his ideal job — one in which he could work just three or four days a week, leaving the rest of the time for reading, thinking and writing. Soon, too, he found in Lili Fabilli Osborne, the estranged wife of a communist friend, a devoted companion for the rest of his life.
Following his involuntary retirement from the docks, in 1964 Hoffer took up a position at Berkeley as a kind of visiting professor, simply coming onto campus once a week to talk for a few hours with students and visitors. He nonetheless deplored what he viewed as the excesses of the 1960s and grew increasingly conservative and crotchety in his later years.
Intellectuals, narrowly defined, earned his particular disdain, since they obviously yearn for status and regard, despise ordinary people, and consider it a “God-given right to tell others what to do.” Hoffer was never so presumptuous. As he said, “There is no greater threat to sanity than the taking of one’s life too seriously. No one will miss us long when we are gone. No one will lose his appetite because we are no more.”
Tom Bethell, a senior editor at the American Spectator, is clearly in sympathy with many of Hoffer’s conservative opinions, but, more important, he has created a thoughtful, highly readable portrait of a complex man. The author of “The True Believer” was, for instance, an almost fanatical champion of Israel — though no one knows if this avowed atheist might have been Jewish. If you’ve never read Hoffer, or if it’s been a long time since you did, this sympathetic overview of his life and achievement will start you searching for his books.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room. His most recent book, “On Conan Doyle,” won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America.
ERIC HOFFER The Longshoreman Philosopher By Tom Bethell Hoover Institution. 304 pp. $29.95