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Eric Hoffer: Longshoreman Philosopher

Sunday, May 26, 2013

‘Any social order . . . which can function well with a minimum of leadership will be an anathema to the intellectual.’

Hardly anyone had heard of Eric Hoffer when his first book, The True Believer, was published in 1951. In fact, when Harper & Brothers was considering accepting it, they asked Norman Thomas, the former presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, to go and see Hoffer. They wanted to verify that he really existed and was what he claimed to be — a longshoreman in San Francisco. No one at the publishing house had seen him or even spoken to him on the telephone. (Hoffer never had a phone except in the last year of his life.) Furthermore, Hoffer’s book was written in an abstract and intellectual style rarely encountered on the waterfront.

Norman Thomas’s son, Evan Thomas (father of the present-day journalist in Washington), was a senior editor at Harper & Brothers (later Harper & Row). Hoffer, according to his own oft-told story, had mailed the manuscript of The True Believer to Harper in a brown paper parcel, without making a copy first. He said he didn’t worry about losing it because he had rewritten it so many times that he knew it by heart.

Norman Thomas vouched for Hoffer, who spoke with a strong German accent. He had joined the longshoremen in 1943, when he was already in his mid-forties. In normal times, Hoffer later wrote, the Longshoreman’s Union was as hard to join as an aristocratic club. But the military draft had shrunk the available manpower and Hoffer was accepted. The boss of the Longshoremen’s Union was Harry Bridges, an Australian whom Congress had tried to deport as a Communist. Hoffer admired Bridges’s ability but not his ideology. At the end of his life he said that he “never spoke a word to Bridges.”

As a class, intellectuals are aristocratic in temperament and seek power for themselves.

In The True Believer Hoffer said that “faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves” — a serviceable summary of the book. It was published to considerable acclaim, with the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune joining in. The San Francisco Examiner always maintained good relations with Hoffer and later published his newspaper column, but the San Francisco Chronicle retained a curious and lifelong animosity toward its homegrown author.

Hoffer went on to write nine more books, all of them short. He told his publishers that he had been born in 1902 but earlier he said 1898 and that is the more likely date. At some point, undetermined, he became known as the longshoreman philosopher. In the second half of his life, he rarely left the San Francisco Bay Area. He died in San Francisco in 1983.

Hoffer never married. But in 1950 he met Lillian Fabilli Osborne, from a family of Italian Catholic immigrants who lived in Delano, California. Lili, her brother, and sisters grew up in penurious surroundings that sounded like those described in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. By the time she met Hoffer, Lili was already married to another longshoreman, Selden Osborne, who had met Hoffer on the San Francisco docks in the late 1940s. He told Lili about this interesting man who had a book coming out about true believers so she asked Selden to invite him to dinner. Hoffer impressed her, and they soon became close.

A lifelong leftist, Selden had attended Stanford University in the 1930s. He joined the longshoremen because he believed that the working class would become the ruling class and joining it would give him a head start. In that, he later admitted, he was mistaken. Hoffer described him as a true believer. But they always remained on good terms, even after Hoffer and Lili were living together. When Hoffer died in his small apartment overlooking the docks where he had worked, Selden alone was in the room with him.

If he was an illegal immigrant, he was subject to instant deportation.

Lili inherited Hoffer’s papers, keeping them first at her house (where they narrowly escaped a fire). Then she sold them to the Hoover Institution. In 2000, they became available to researchers; access was at first difficult because no copying was allowed. Lili died in 2010, at the age of 94.

I had been impressed by the lucidity and originality of Hoffer’s work and I wrote to him in 1980, seeking an interview. He agreed, and I was one of the last journalists to see him. Years too late, I worked out the questions that I should have asked. Then, on annual summer visits to Hoover, I began to go through the mass of his papers. Lili had saved everything, and was no doubt right that Hoffer would have thrown almost everything away. A most uncharacteristic bachelor, he was the opposite of a pack rat.

Three books about Hoffer were published in his lifetime. The first was based on a long “profile” by Calvin Tomkins, published in the New Yorker in 1967. James D. Koerner, a vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, was intrigued by Hoffer and interviewed him in the early 1970s. His book, Hoffer’s America, was published in 1973. The third, by James T. Baker, was primarily based on research by Stacy Cole, who taught at a community college in Fremont. He probably spent more time with Hoffer than anyone except for Lili.

After a few summers at Hoover, I realized that something was amiss. I had been looking for new details — already sparse — about the first decades of Hoffer’s life. But almost nothing in the archives about those years was new and not already published. Earlier magazine articles and interviews included the same old stories, almost verbatim, some of which he told me in turn. Often his listeners imagined they were the first to hear them, and didn’t question anything.

Responding to my query, Calvin Tomkins (still with the New Yorker today) wrote:

I’m afraid I can’t shed any light on your questions about Eric Hoffer and his early life. I did no research on the subject, relying simply on what he told me at the time. The things he said about his early life did sound quite shadowy, but he was a great talker and he made it all seem authentic.

In his account, Hoffer was born in New York City, the only child of Knut and Elsa, who apparently immigrated from Alsace Lorraine. But nothing can be corroborated; no birth certificate has been found, and nothing is revealed about his parents. Of his own mother Hoffer said only that she fell down a flight of stairs while carrying him. He referred to his father as a “village atheist” and his father called him an “idiot child.” That’s the only reported exchange between them.

Hoffer said that 'faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.'

Hoffer never gave the address in the Bronx where he said he lived for the first 20 years of his life. He suddenly went blind when he was seven, he said, explaining why he never went to school. Eight years later he recovered his sight, either abruptly or slowly (in different accounts). Later he spent a considerable amount of time in a nearby bookstore, reading books and sometimes buying them. After his father died and left him a small legacy, Hoffer left for California (by train or by bus, in different accounts).

Everything that Hoffer said about New York City in the first 20 years of his life can be told in a paragraph. His father once took him to a concert where Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was performed. He went to an unidentified bookstore. No childhood friends are named. I began to wonder if he really grew up there, or even lived there. It’s much the same story when he gets to Los Angeles (although he undoubtedly did live there on and off in the 1930s). I grew to suspect that Hoffer’s early life story was unreliable. Maybe he was an immigrant.

I told Lili this one day, apprehensively, because she was the zealous guardian of his image and reputation. To my relief she agreed with me. She, too, had harbored doubts, believing that Eric probably was an immigrant. It would account for his German accent, for one thing. Hoffer didn’t just sound German, but spoke it fluently.

She made two further points. Hoffer was the sole source of everything we know about his earlier life. Second, she had never met anyone from his pre-True Believer years. Stacy Cole, the community college teacher, whom I interviewed at length, said the same thing.

I adopted the working hypothesis that Hoffer was an immigrant, possibly undocumented, and began looking for anything that would confirm or refute that idea. I soon received strong confirmation in the form of an early magazine article published by The Reporter. It was edited by an anti-Communist immigrant named Max Ascoli (Irving Kristol once worked for him). Ascoli was intrigued by Hoffer’s story — The True Believer had just been published — and he dispatched a writer to interview Hoffer in San Francisco.

The True Believer was not considered a conservative book. But Hoffer soon became a conservative.

In the usual account, Hoffer’s parents came to America with a woman named Martha Bauer, who took care of him when he was blind. After the 1918 Armistice she returned to Germany. But the Reporter article relates that after Elsa died, soon after she fell down the stairs, he “groped helplessly about the room.” He had “no friends, no games, no ambitions, no grasp of reality.” No Martha, either. In later accounts she is not just Hoffer’s friend, but his only friend.

There is one other source. The True Believer is dedicated to Margaret Anderson, who worked for a magazine called Common Ground. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation, it was published in the 1940s and Anderson became its editor. Hoffer had seen the magazine in the Carnegie-funded public libraries he frequented, and he sent some early manuscripts to her. They were not published, but Anderson, recognizing his talent, encouraged Hoffer to continue writing. That is why The True Believer was dedicated to her.

There was a fairly copious correspondence between Anderson and Hoffer but most of it is now apparently lost. Nonetheless, surviving early letters from Hoffer to her do not mention Martha Bauer. Eugene Burdick, who later co-authored The Ugly American and Fail-Safe, befriended Hoffer and interviewed him in 1956. The next year he wrote an article for The Reporter, with the first mention of Martha.

There are other reasons to doubt Hoffer’s story of his early life. An eye specialist I interviewed questioned the plausibility of Hoffer’s blindness, both its abrupt loss and recovery. James Koerner, in his Hoffer’s America, made a determined effort to learn more about Hoffer’s early life. But this made Hoffer “ill at ease,” he found. He would insist that his life wasn’t important. As with other interviewers, Hoffer took refuge in a failing memory. He told the author of a doctoral thesis: “Nearing seventy, I am uninterested in my distant past.”

Hoffer emerges in the clear light of day when he “found himself in San Diego” in 1934. He went to a wholesale food place where he helped a truck driver unload and was so hungry that he began “devouring cabbage cow fashion.” The trucker then drove him to El Centro, 90 miles east of San Diego and close to the Mexican border. A federal homeless shelter had recently been established there — an early part of the New Deal. 

In an account written later, in 1938 — and in sharp contrast to his previous shadowy stories — Hoffer gave copious details of his new life with homeless men. It began to seem to me possible, perhaps even likely, that he had come to the United States across the Mexican border. Nothing is decisive. But maybe he left Germany with Hitler’s accession to power in 1933. Hoffer was familiar with details of German life in the 1920s, including the pre-inflation thousand mark note, which “looked so beautiful, white with beautiful writing.” How did he know about such things from a homeless camp?

Hoffer’s book was written in an abstract and intellectual style rarely encountered on the waterfront.

There are also indications that Hoffer was Jewish. In an amazing encounter with Milton Himmelfarb at the University of California, Berkeley, recounted by Stacy Cole, Hoffer showed that he understood and could speak Hebrew. He told another interviewer that he had learned Hebrew, along with botany and chemistry, on skid row in Los Angeles  — a story that is hard to believe, especially as the botany text that he cited was in German. Before publication, he submitted The True Believer to a Rabbi (Saul White) for his approval. The fate of Israel became an obsession, and Hoffer often referred to God as Jehovah. The survival of Israel after the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War became the latter-day passion of his life.

After his stay at the homeless shelter, Hoffer set off on his life as an itinerant worker, picking vegetables up and down California’s Central Valley; sometimes self-employed as a gold miner in the Sierras. Here the new details match his earlier accounts, and his overall story is credible. Some time after Pearl Harbor, probably in 1942, he rented a room in San Francisco, joined the union, and began writing The True Believer, using a plank as a desk. When the union was on strike, he made good progress on the book.

If he was an illegal immigrant, he was subject to instant deportation. Perhaps a million people were deported in the 1930s — most of them to Mexico and without due process. Later, after Hoffer became well established and was invited to the White House by Lyndon Johnson, he had every incentive not to change his story. No one doubted it anyway.

The True Believer was not considered a conservative book. But Hoffer soon became a conservative.  He was offered an adjunct position by U.C. Berkeley, where, one afternoon a week, he talked with anyone who showed up. It was an easy task for him. It also coincided with the Free Speech Movement on campus. With his office overlooking Sproul Plaza, the center of protest, he grew to dislike the spreading rebellious mood, later summarized as “the Sixties.” In a 1967 interview with Eric Sevareid for CBS News, he said many pro-American things and was highly critical of the Left. This outlook remained with him for the rest of his life.

One political insight is worth repeating because it seems as applicable as ever. We may well wonder today what drives the liberal desire to expand the reach of government beyond what seems prudent. Their recipe, as Hoffer said, always calls for “more.” But he referred to intellectuals, not liberals. A publisher offered him an advance to write a short book on the intelligentsia. He turned them down because he aimed for something more elaborate. Alas, it was never written.

But his many notebooks showed what he had in mind.

“The intellectual knows with every fiber of his being that all men are not equal,” he wrote at one point, “and there are few things that he cares for less than a classless society.” Intellectuals regard “the common man as a means,” and, in an age of democracy, egalitarianism is the ideal weapon. Equality is forever unattainable, so “more” is always needed.  Intellectuals are particularly antagonistic to the United States, because it dispersed power outward to the masses in a way that no country had ever done before. As a class, intellectuals are aristocratic in temperament and seek power for themselves.

Looking at it from the worker’s point of view, he wrote:

A free society is as much a threat to the intellectual’s sense of worth as an automated economy is a threat to the worker’s sense of worth. Any social order . . . which can function well with a minimum of leadership will be an anathema to the intellectual.

Tom Bethell is a senior editor at The American Spectator and author of Eric Hoffer: the Longshoreman Philosopher.

FURTHER READING: Bethell also writes "In Praise of Amateurs," "Micro Man," "Taxed to Death," and "New Orleans, Mon Amour." Danjell Elgebrandt and Tino Sanandaji contribute "Competing for Elites." Tevi Troy discusses “The Mind in the Oval Office.”



Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group


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