June 19, 2016


Longshoreman, Philosopher, Mystery : a review of Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher  by Tom Bethell (DANIEL J. FLYNN, Universtity Bookman)

Was Eric Hoffer an author or a character? "After 1965, Hoffer became a public figure," Bethell writes. "Before 1934, he is a mystery figure." Hoffer, despite a Germanic accent, claimed an American nativity story; and despite once listing 1898 as the year of his birth, later maintained a 1902 birth date. book cover imageEven these basic "facts" about the author of The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements can't be truly believed. He certainly lived in Franklin Roosevelt's America, detailing life in a Works Progress Administration camp, filling out a Social Security form, and registering for the draft in 1942. But no birth certificate, baptismal document, report card, passport, driver's license, or any other documentation verifies Hoffer's existence prior to the late 1930s.

In a TMI-age when Twitter, Facebook, and reality television make private business the public's business, it is almost unfathomable that an American could leave no trace of his first four decades to the government, the press, or researchers. Given CBS featuring Hoffer in two one-hour primetime specials in the late 1960s, and a heavily publicized summit with President Lyndon Johnson on the White House's South Lawn, the obscurity of the famous author's origins is especially baffling. Bethell theorizes that Hoffer was an illegal alien who fabricated a colorful yarn to cover his shady entry. That is certainly as plausible as anything Hoffer claimed of his early years.

What readers have found most enigmatic about Hoffer has been his dual worker-author personality. For a quarter-century, he spent several days a week loading and unloading cargo on the docks of San Francisco. In his off hours, he engaged in ambulatory thinking in Golden Gate Park, scribbled ideas in pocket-sized notebooks, and absorbed weighty hardbacks, which "he sometimes broke . . . apart for easier handling and threw away the carcasses." That mythic worker-thinker that Nathaniel Hawthorne sought to channel at Brook Farm became realized in the Stevedore Socrates. An awestruck Bethell wonders, "Was there any precedent for this in the life of the nation?"

Hoffer's life was a mix of confusing contradictions and clear ideas. The anti-Communist supporter of the Vietnam War loyally served a union led by Communist Harry Bridges, who, Bethell points out, disloyally returned the favor by blocking any mention of the union's most famous and most unusual member in organizational periodicals. The unschooled autodidact found a sinecure at the University of California-Berkeley, epicenter of all that he railed against in the 1960s. The lifelong Democrat's first taste of fame came from the unabashed boosterism of The True Believer by Dwight Eisenhower; his last stemmed from Ronald Reagan awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Affiliated with neither a political movement nor a "little magazine," Hoffer remains difficult to pigeonhole. As Bethell explains of the gregarious loner: "He had the courage to stand alone."

Whereas Hoffer's life perplexes, his writing doesn't leave much room for interpretation. The big man conveyed big ideas. His small books exuded a weariness of intellectuals seeking to sow disorder by ordering the lives of others, movements whose mass absorbed its individuals, and revolutionary transformations that unleashed havoc on societies the way hormonal changes wreak chaos in juveniles. His efficient, epiphany-inducing prose communicated directly without tedious qualifiers hedging his thoughts. He may have spoken with a German accent. He did not write with one. His books betrayed neither an opaque Germanic tone nor the journeyman English characteristic of newcomers. His style owed much to the accessible epigrammatic flair of Pascal, Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, and other French thinkers. If this style seemed alien to his American readership, it is largely because his influences had become alien to those under his influence. Hoffer's interest in broad enduring questions--change, fanaticism, intellectuals--without reference to fleeting issues ensured that his audience would long outlive him.

...is Hoffer's True Believer.  

Posted by at June 19, 2016 4:54 PM