Capitol Ideas

The Mystery of Eric Hoffer

We know very little about his life before he was 35.

By From the April 2012 issue

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No one had heard of Eric Hoffer until he published The True Believer (1951), a set of reflections about mass movements and those attracted to them. He was also known as the Longshoreman Philosopher. From 1943 to 1967 he worked under Harry Bridges, the labor boss on the San Francisco waterfront. After The True Believer he wrote a number of books, mostly short, consisting of his articles or aphorisms. He became an adjunct professor at U.C. Berkeley at the time of the Free Speech movement and was interviewed by Eric Sevareid for CBS. He died in 1983, his age probably 85.

But we know very little about his life before the mid-1930s. That is where the mystery comes in. We know that he moved to San Francisco soon after Pearl Harbor and rented a room in a low-rent district. There he wrote The True Believer, using a plank for a desk. Before that he was a migrant worker in California's Central Valley—stoop labor picking fruit and vegetables.

In 1934 he showed up at a federal homeless shelter in El Centro, California, close to the Mexican border. A trucker drove him there from San Diego, where he was so hungry that he ate cabbage "cow style" at a wholesale food depot. Where was he before San Diego? I believe there is great uncertainty. It may be that he had crossed the border from Mexico.

Hoffer never married but about a decade ago his long-time lady friend, Lili Osborne, made his papers available to researchers at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. In summer visits to Hoover, I went through those papers and now my book, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher is out (published by the Hoover Institution Press). It includes photographs and some unpublished writing by Hoffer.

Earlier, I interviewed Hoffer himself; both shortly before Ronald Reagan's election and then a few months later. I also interviewed some of the few who knew him well, including Lili Osborne and her son Eric. Another close friend was Stacy Cole, a professor at a community college in Fremont. He was associated with Hoffer over a 15-year period. Also featured is Lili's husband, Selden Osborne. He and Hoffer worked together as longshoremen and Hoffer called him a "true believer." He was in the room with Hoffer when he died.

Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at Hoover, was interested in Hoffer and compiled an index to his books. Once he asked me if I was writing a biography of Hoffer. I said that if you don't know much about the first 35 years of a man's life, "biography" may be a misnomer.

Three books about Hoffer were published in his lifetime. The first, by Calvin Tomkins, was based on a New Yorker profile in 1967. Tomkins told me that when he interviewed Hoffer, "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." James D. Koerner, with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, wrote a second book (Hoffer's America, 1973). Hoffer "plainly dislikes talking about his early life," Koerner wrote. In fact, "quite a bit of it is simply unknown to him." To a doctoral student, Hoffer said: "I am uninterested in my distant past. I have probably told everything worth telling."

Hoffer said he spent the first 20 years of his life in the Bronx. But everything he said could fit onto two pages. Nothing can be confirmed. He never gave his Bronx address, never went to school, identified no friends. He said he went blind for eight years, hence no school. Then he recovered his sight. Ancestry sites have turned up nothing and when Lili's son Eric once told Hoffer that he felt like "hiring a genealogist in New York to look up your father," whose name was Knut, Hoffer replied:

"Are you sure you really want to know?" Like there was some dark stuff.…I don't know. There's stuff happened that he didn't want anybody to know. He had a real casual and dreadful way of letting something slip. "Are you sure you want to know?"

Hoffer spoke with a strong German accent. He told people that Knut came to New York from Al-sace-Lorraine. But young Eric went there, too, and found that their lilting accent was quite unlike Hoffer's more guttural Bavarian. He tried looking through the "Ellis Island stuff" but could find no trace of Knut Hoffer.

In a late notebook Hoffer wrote that young Eric believed him to be his father. Stephen Osborne, Eric's older brother, agreed. But when I asked Eric Osborne himself for a comment at the time of Lili's funeral, he said: "I guess I had better leave that unanswered. Both of those guys [Selden and Hoffer] are a part of me and I loved them both."

Young Eric agreed that Hoffer's account of his early life didn't add up. He thought Hoffer's case might be comparable to that of B. Traven, the mysterious German author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, whose identity is still unknown. (B. Traven was a pen name.)

But most significant was the response of Lili Osborne. She could be intimidating, and I worried that she might throw me out when I expressed skepticism about Hoffer's early life. Instead she welcomed the idea and said she had always thought of him as an immigrant. She had no definite knowledge. She did say that "all we know about his early life is what he told us." She also said that, although she had known Hoffer for 30 years, she never once met anyone from his earlier (pre-True Believer) life.

TO ME, THE CLINCHER CAME with a discovery about "Martha," a German woman who supposedly came with Hoffer's parents from Europe to the Bronx. As a child he slept in her bed, and when he went blind she guided him about. But in Hoffer's early accounts of his life, for example in The Reporter in 1951, there is no Martha. She appears in 1957, in an article by Eugene Burdick, who later co-authored two best sellers, The Ugly American and Fail-Safe. Then Martha becomes a fixture in Hoffer's later accounts. I believe she was a later invention.

Lili also told me that when The True Believer manuscript was written but before publication, he submitted it to Rabbi Saul White in San Francisco for his approval. He was told "that he should proceed." The fate of Israel became an obsession for Hoffer. The indications that he was Jewish are discussed in my book. One of the most striking is that he could speak Hebrew. He claimed that he learned it "on skid row in Los Angeles." He was also familiar with German textbooks on botany and chemistry, and these, too, he studied on skid row. That is hard to believe.

Stephen Osborne said that more important than the puzzles about Hoffer's life is "what he wrote." That is true. But we all like a mystery. The True Believer was not seen as a conservative book. But by the 1960s-especially after his Berkeley experiences-he became what we would call a neoconservative.

Read any of Hoffer's books (most are available from Hopewell Publishers in New Jersey). Hoffer took enormous trouble over his writing, sometimes rewriting ten times or more. The disappointment is that he never finished his book on intellectuals. He worked on it for years. But some of his thoughts are assembled in my chapter 8. A couple of examples:

The intellectual knows with every fiber of his being that all men are not equal, and there are few things that he cares for less than a classless society. No matter how genuine the intellectual's altruism, he regards the common man as a means.

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.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).