Longshoreman, Philosopher, Mystery
None of Eric Hoffer’s ten slim and streamlined books allowed room for photographic inserts. His biography, Tom Bethell’s Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, contains a jarring picture of its subject strangely unshaven and wearing Alaskan garb. But Eric Hoffer had never sported a beard nor ventured anywhere near the Arctic Circle—and, having been dead for almost thirty years, never donned twenty-first-century winter fashion, either. Hoffer’s spitting image in the photograph is his fully-grown son Eric Osborne, whose uncanny resemblance to his father is as much occupational as physiological. It can’t be a surprise that a burly stevedore begat a rugged fisherman; it can’t be anything but a surprise that the stevedore sired a son. Eric Hoffer gave the child his first name; his friend Selden Osborne provided the last. The one-man rebuttal to the counterculture got a head start on the 1960s by impregnating his best friend’s wife in the 1950s. The neatest people lead the messiest lives.
Tom Bethell’s Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher is a mystery disguised as a biography. Therein, the author unravels some mysteries, such as why Big Eric took such an interest through his time, published diaries, and will in Little Eric. Most of the puzzle leaves Bethell, and other fans of his subject, puzzled. Eric Hoffer captivates readers because readers haven’t figured out the writer.
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. Even 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.
Though his boisterous personality doesn’t assert itself in his detached writing, the workingman-intellectual radiating “blue-collar” attracted attention. “Image certainly played a role,” Bethell concedes. “His literary reputation was helped by the public knowledge that he was a working longshoreman. With his distinctive Filson jacket and his workingman’s cap, he dressed the part and he continued to do so after he retired. Hoffer was a master of style, and his style was not just literary.”
Bethell notes that his subject “wanted to observe and describe, not praise or condemn.” The same could be said of Bethell’s approach to Hoffer. He cites the hulking thinker for imprecision, exaggeration, cynicism, and a penchant for the ad hominem argument. But these are more observations than criticisms. Bethell writes that Hoffer “really was a philosopher in the old sense,” albeit one who brought “insights” more than “the solution” to problems. These insights, coming from one so alien to all that surrounded, couldn’t help but prove distinct from the thinking that pervaded. Hoffer, like The Kinks, could have credibly said: “I’m not like everybody else.”
In the twenty-nine years since Hoffer’s death, no blue-collar intellectual has come along to fill his oversized work boots. This should not surprise. Such a vivid character without antecedent leaves impressions and not progeny—at least in a metaphorical sense. The longshoreman philosopher was an original, albeit one whose origins originated in his imagination. Thankfully, from that fertile mind sprang books along with a character.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America (ISI Books), which includes a chapter on Eric Hoffer.
Posted: May 20, 2012
Much Ado About Nothing—or Something