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April 6, 2012

Eric Hoffer, Genius—And Enigma

His early years remain obscure, but the postwar writings and influence of the Longshoreman Philosopher proved incandescent. By Tom Bethell.


Eric Hoffer was unknown in the American literary and philosophical scene in 1951 when he published his first book, The True Believer. Almost overnight, the San Francisco dockworker became a public figure. Recognized as a highly original thinker, he became known as the Longshoreman Philosopher. A 1956 profile in Look magazine identified Hoffer as “Ike’s Favorite Author,” elevating this blue-collar workingman to the level of President Eisenhower’s bedside table.

It wasn’t just Eisenhower who appreciated Hoffer’s intelligence and wit. Public figures, ranging from the author and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to the philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell, praised his work. Since September 11, 2001, some commentators have noted that Hoffer’s analysis of “the true believer” and mass movements in general—although written with Hitler’s and Stalin’s followers in mind—applied equally well to Islamic fundamentalists.

Hoffer worked on the San Francisco waterfront for almost a quarter-century. After The True Believer, he published ten more books; later in life he often (although not always) said that his first book was his best. Then, in one of those only-in-America stories that Hoffer himself so loved, this self-made man, this unashamed patriot and fan of Ronald Reagan, became an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, during the free speech movement.

Hoffer’s place in American politics and intellectual thought is an enigmatic one. Much of his writing was in the form of aphorisms: short, pithy remarks that touched on eternal truths. But he was also capable of the sustained thought and expression that went into The True Believer and some of his other books and newspaper columns. Hoffer was interested in probing the depths of human behavior and discovering the motivations behind the twentieth century’s wars and revolutions. Wary of public praise, he resembled the prophets of the Old Testament, free to make people of high and low estate uncomfortable with his insights.

Much of his writing was aphorisms: short, pithy remarks that touched on eternal truths.

The story of Hoffer’s early years is little known. Hoffer offered interviewers a rough outline of his first four decades, but his various versions contradicted each other. His date of birth is uncertain, often given as 1902 but more likely 1898. He claimed his German accent came from Alsatian immigrant parents, but it was often described as Bavarian. And the account he often gave of losing his sight at an early age and then regaining it several years later doesn’t fit with some of his other versions—or with medical probability. The man who startled readers with his insight into the truths of revolutionary movements took particular trouble to conceal the truth about his own background. Quite possibly he was born in Germany and never became a legal resident of the United States.

Hoffer’s life divides into two roughly equal parts. The first is from birth to his move to San Francisco after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The second is his life in San Francisco. Before Pearl Harbor, without exception, Hoffer’s life is documented only by what he said or wrote. It is the same with the research and interviews of others. Hoffer was their sole source. His best friend, Lili Osborne, summarized the difficulty: “All we know about Eric’s early life is what he told us.”

Man sitting on the dock

She didn’t mean just the first few years, either, but the first thirty-five years. He described his life in those decades many times. But nothing can be corroborated. After he moved to San Francisco, his life is well known from the recollections of those who knew him, from press coverage, magazine articles, televised interviews, and public appearances. The first half is barely documented at all.

It’s as though he stepped out of the San Francisco fog in the 1940s. He died in 1983, still in San Francisco.

AN IRREGULAR PAPER TRAIL

In 2000, the Hoover Institution acquired seventy-five linear feet of Eric Hoffer’s papers from his longtime friend, Lili Osborne. She had accumulated them over many years; without her intervention they almost certainly would have been discarded. A few years after the papers were transferred, I had lunch with Thomas Sowell, a prolific author, columnist, and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was interested in Hoffer, and with the help of an assistant had compiled a subject index to Hoffer’s books, none of which had been published with an index.

The man who startled readers with his insight into certain truths took particular trouble to conceal the truth about his own background.

Dr. Sowell told me he had heard I was working on a biography of Hoffer. I said that I had indeed been going through his papers but that a true biography would be a challenge. Not enough was known about the first half of his life. Three books about the man who became known as the Longshoreman Philosopher were published in his lifetime, all of them now out of print. All the facts about his early life in those books were drawn from interviews with Hoffer, conducted either by the authors or by other journalists. Furthermore, little that I have been able to find in the Hoover Archives adds to our knowledge of Hoffer’s early decades.

The watershed date is January 1934. In the first interview in which a reporter specifically inquired about his earlier life, Hoffer said that he “found himself broke in San Diego” in the year 1934. The rest of the article, about a thousand words long, included not one word about his life before he “found himself” in San Diego. It was published in a long-defunct newspaper, the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, in March 1951.

Did he really teach himself botany, chemistry, and Hebrew on skid row in Los Angeles? One can’t help wondering.

After 1934, Hoffer’s whereabouts are well known. His account of his stay in a federal transient camp in El Centro (ninety-five miles east of San Diego) is well documented by his own surviving and contemporaneous writings. He became a migrant worker and gold miner in California and his accounts of these activities in the latter half of the 1930s are plausible. His descriptions are numerous, credible, and consistent.

After Pearl Harbor, Hoffer moved permanently to San Francisco. His life in the 1940s is short on details, but we know where he was and what he was doing: he was working on the docks and writing his first book, The True Believer. After 1951 his life opens up. It becomes a matter of public record and, increasingly, is well known to the general public.

As to Hoffer’s whereabouts before San Diego, I hasten to add that I do not have anything to replace his own sparse account. But there are questions, and I raise them in my new book, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (Hoover Press, 2012). Nonetheless, mine is almost entirely a negative case and, as the saying goes, you can’t beat something with nothing.

Hoffer’s unpublished writings have been largely preserved—his notebooks in particular. The great majority date from the thirty years between 1950 and 1980. Entries are often polished. There are some earlier notebooks, usually not dated, but nothing seems to have been written much before 1936. No scrap of his writing before he arrived in El Centro is known to have survived.

AN INTELLECTUAL FREE AGENT

Going through Hoffer’s papers, I became increasingly frustrated. I realized that to say anything at all about the first three and a half decades of his life I was entirely dependent on the books and articles that had already been published decades earlier. They in turn relied on Hoffer’s oft-repeated but meager stories.

Everything he said about his first twenty years in the Bronx, for example, can be written down in three or four paragraphs. He was pestered for more details, but this normally gifted storyteller was stubbornly reticent about those years.

If the first thirty-five years of a man’s life are undocumented and depend exclusively on his own account—an account that is not fully convincing—then the resulting work is something less than a biography. This is especially true in the case of a man who became well known in later life.

Will more information about Hoffer’s background turn up? That’s doubtful. There are signs that he was more than merely forgetful about his early years. In fact, I believe he was deliberately secretive. When pressed for more detail by journalists he would say he was confused or couldn’t remember much of anything. About later events in his life he had an excellent memory. Were there things he didn’t want us to know? One possibility that comes to mind is that he was an illegal immigrant to this country. But again, I have no positive evidence. Did he really teach himself botany, chemistry, and Hebrew on skid row in Los Angeles? One can’t help wondering.

Nonetheless, there is an abundance of new material available in the Archives. And after reviewing Hoffer’s notebooks, this conclusion persists in my mind and will survive all doubts and questions: Hoffer was above all an original thinker and an outstanding writer. It is a precious combination. He subscribed to many journals and he followed current events. But he never followed any intellectual fashion.

He was free of the practical pressures that steer so many people of an intellectual disposition into conventional channels of thought. He lay beyond the peer pressure, grant hunting, and cultural intimidation that stultify much of the academic world today. He had talent in abundance and was conscious of Henrik Ibsen’s claim that talent was more a duty than a property. In one of his later notebooks, Hoffer wrote:

God has implanted in us the seeds of all greatness and it behooves us to see to it that the seeds germinate, grow, and come to flower. We must see learning and growing as a sort of worship. For God has implanted capacities and talents in us, and it is our sacred duty to finish God’s work.

In any consideration of his life, whether or not a used bookstore was his school or skid row his graduate school, these virtues will always shine through. He had the courage to stand alone.


Tom Bethell, a media fellow at the Hoover Institution, is senior editor for the American Spectator.


Excerpted from Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, by Tom Bethell (Hoover Press, 2012). © 2012 by Tom Bethell. All rights reserved.