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The Ultimate Self-Made Man

The mysterious, amazing Eric Hoffer, as captured for good by AmSpec's own Tom Bethell.

By From the July - Aug 2012 issue

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Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher
By Tom Bethell
(Hoover Institution Press, 304 PAGES, $29.95)

LIKE MANY AMERICANS OF MY GENERATION, I first became aware of Eric Hoffer through a pair of riveting interviews of the "Longshoreman Philosopher" conducted by Eric Sevareid and broadcast on CBS television in June 1967 and November 1968. The Hoffer interviews, lasting an hour each, turned a talented but relatively obscure blue-collar "philosopher," known to only a small circle of readers and editors, into a national celebrity. In his perceptive and diligently researched new biography of Hoffer, author and longtime TAS contributor Tom Bethell captures both the content and the impact of those two television interviews: "CBS filmed Hoffer walking in Golden Gate Park, but mostly sitting in the corner of a hotel room, an awkward-looking space, talking volubly. His strong German accent must have made things difficult for some viewers. Often he spoke rapidly, ranging in volume from a whisper to a shout. He spoke with great passion, responding almost instantly, smoking cigarettes and frequently mopping himself with a handkerchief."

Hoffer's forceful, compelling delivery was harnessed to a powerful message, one that was seldom heard in those days on network television, but that resonated with millions of ordinary citizens. He "boomed out praise of America and the workers, and denounced the intellectuals who, he said, were by then on their familiar fault-finding mission against the country. A bemused Sevareid, also smoking, mostly just listened and seemed to relish Hoffer's contrarian views. The audience, he knew, was hearing something unusual."

According to Sevareid, the first interview "broke just about all the records for telephone and mail response… the telephone switchboards in every CBS station across the country lit up. The next day, I was told, his little books sold out in virtually every bookstore that had them."

Eric Hoffer, a very private, almost reclusive autodidact with no known formal education, had become, literally overnight, a popular celebrity and, ironically—considering what he thought of the intelligentsia as a class—America's first truly "public" intellectual. Nothing quite like that could happen today for two very good reasons.

First, at the time there were only three national networks to choose from, and CBS, which liked to think of itself as a bit more cerebral than NBC and ABC, actually allotted big chunks of prime time to cultural and intellectual programming. This meant that, on any given night, a plurality of all Americans watching television—which families tended to do together in those days, clustered around a single set in the living room or family room—might end up looking at the same program. That kind of saturation is virtually impossible today with hundreds of cable and satellite outlets all competing for the same viewers around the clock. Maybe it's just as well, given the abysmal state of most of the current cardboard sitcoms, unreal reality shows, and dumbeddown news coverage.

And then there's reason number two: They just don't make them like Eric Hoffer anymore.

A self-described uneducated "nobody," he had eked out a meager living as a transient laborer, a busboy, and a prospector on the West Coast before settling into the tough but comparatively stable life of a longshoreman working the docks of San Francisco. Living in flophouses, shelters, workers' dorms, and rented rooms, Hoffer gave himself—albeit selectively and idiosyncratically—a formidable classical education. Michel de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal ranked among his favorite writers, and what Tom Bethell describes as the early "shaping influence on his ideas" came from the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and Ernest Renan. Immersion in the work of such masterful authors and thinkers helped him develop his own powerful, precise, and-in the best sense of the word-cultivated prose.

How had Eric Hoffer managed it during his early hardscrabble days as a migrant worker? As he told a previous biographer, James D. Koerner, whenever he managed to accumulate some spare cash, "I bought all new clothes and threw the old ones away. Then I went to the Japanese barber.… Then I got myself a room halfway between the library and the whorehouse." All that time devoted to books and bordellos gave Hoffer a panoramic view of the human condition that was both informed and earthy, with none of the illusions that afflict the "true believer" mentality of so many intellectuals.

TO HOFFER, AMERICA WAS THE ONLY GOOD, truly new thing to come along after millennia of Old World tyranny and degradation. In one of many diary entries on the subject, he would write, "To me it is a miracle that 200 million people who are largely the descendants of rejects and dropouts from Europe should have created in this country the most important material power on the planet." It's not quite so miraculous when one remembers that everyone who reached these shores as an immigrant—as opposed to a slave—was already an exceptional person before arrival. For every immigrant who left the squalor, poverty, and oppression of 19th-century Sicily, Calabria, Ireland, Czarist Russia, or the Ottoman Empire, there were thousands of sufferers who never stirred, never dreamed, and never dared. No matter how humble their stock, those immigrants were extraordinary, the result of an almost Darwinian process of natural selection—Everyman as Superman—with levels of energy and initiative that far outpaced those of the friends, neighbors, and relatives they left behind in the old country.

What better example than Eric Hoffer himself? While we will probably never know the true details of his birth and childhood years—most of what he wrote about them was contradictory or unsubstantiated—he clearly was immigrant stock, and quite possibly an immigrant himself. Until his dying day, he spoke with a particular type of thick German accent: southern "Low German" characteristic of Bavaria and Austria, although he claimed that his father was a cabinet maker from Alsace-Lorraine who had settled in the Bronx. No records exist to that effect. His dramatic accounts of childhood blindness, benevolent nurses, and the early deaths of both parents are also unsubstantiated. Indeed, the first documentation of Hoffer himself is his application for a Social Security account, filed in Sacramento, California, on June 10, 1937, when he would have been 38 years old. His pre-California life is thus a matter of speculation, and it is possible—even likely—that he was born in Germany, received some primary and secondary education there, and emigrated to America on his own as a young man, "jumping ship" without papers and heading pretty quickly to the West Coast.

All of which explains the absence of a birth certificate and raises the possibility that this quintessentially American character lived and died in his adoptive country as an illegal alien. Who knows? He may even have invented the name by which he became famous; "Hoff" is German for "hope," and "Hoffer," while not a legitimate German word, could be construed as "one who hopes."

Whatever the truth about Eric Hoffer's origins—and Bethell has done his commendable best to make sense of the few facts available—the thinking and writing that would earn him his welldeserved recognition were all done in California. It was there, one might say, that his real life began. And if Hoffer, a born "storyteller" by Bethell's account, chose to create a mythical childhood for himself, it makes him even more of a self-made man than we thought he was.

The truths that really matter are the ones he framed so eloquently in his philosophic writing, notably in his two best books, The True Believer and The Ordeal of Change. Both of my favorite Hoffer aphorisms—"Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves," and "An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head,"—capture the essence of what makes fanatical True Believers so invincibly ignorant.

A personal postscript: While I never had the pleasure of meeting Eric Hoffer, our paths crossed in a different way. While serving as Ronald Reagan's director of presidential speechwriting from 1981-1983, I also was responsible for the selection process for the Medal of Freedom, our country's highest civilian prize. While I am proud of all of the men and women who were granted that great honor on my watch, two recipients that I personally recommended mean the most to me. One was Eubie Blake, a son of slaves who went on to become one of the greatest pianist-composers of the ragtime era, and who was approaching his hundredth birthday when he came to the White House to receive the medal. The other was Eric Hoffer. By the time he won the award, he was too ill from emphysema to travel to Washington. But I understand that he was fully aware of the honor: America had finally and officially returned Eric Hoffer's embrace.

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.