Thomas Sowell turned 91 this week. One suspects his face never catches up to his age. But long ago his behavior betrayed an inner-directed curmudgeon decades older than his birth certificate.
Jason Riley forewarns readers in the introduction of Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell that “this is primarily an intellectual biography, meaning that my focus is on the author’s scholarly output, not his life story.”
Nevertheless, Riley, here and there, feeds the starved reader facts about his mysterious subject. Sowell received a B from Milton Friedman in a class at the University of Chicago. He dropped a course taught by Gary Becker. “Sowell was a registered Democrat until 1972,” he writes, “and has never been registered Republican.” A running joke between Sowell, political scientist William Allen, and the late economist Walter Williams explained that the trio never flew together lest they risk killing all of America’s black conservative intellectuals should the plane crash. He describes a friendship, in part forged through a shared love of photography, with Steven Pinker that once witnessed the pair of highbrains rent a helicopter to take pictures of San Francisco.
Riley’s ability to stress a glaring aspect of Sowell’s personality pointed to in the title demonstrates the importance of one’s story to one’s ideas.
Before Thomas Sowell stood alone as a scholar, he stood alone as a child. His father died shortly before his birth, and his overwhelmed mother left him with an aunt, who migrated from segregated North Carolina to cosmopolitan New York during Sowell’s time in grade school. Sowell dropped out of high school, lived on his own in Manhattan as a teenager, and rebelled against sergeants in the Marines. He took the road less traveled.
“Sowell’s go-it-alone attitude not only predates his [University of] Chicago days but also defines his entire career, spanning everything from his scholarship on economic history to his writings on social theory and civil rights activism,” Riley writes in reference to Sowell arguing with professors in graduate school. The author elsewhere shows what he says here. He retells the story of Sowell resigning from Cornell University after pressure compelled the chairman of the economics department to reverse a decision initially backing the 30-something professor’s ejection of a misbehaving student from a summer program. Riley in another part of the biography informs, “He once returned a book advance after the publisher insisted on changing dates in the manuscript to read AD 800 instead of 800 AD.”
Who else but a difficult man could embrace so many difficult positions clashing with those in his profession, of his times, and within his race?
Sowell, putting his own spin on the nature-nurture dichotomy, invokes culture as a great determinant in group patterns in the face of diverse environments. Another theme finds Sowell charging intellectuals with harboring self-interest in falling for and advancing schemes that ultimately put them in roles directing society. He focuses on black behavior rather than white behavior to explain outcomes for African Americans. He rejects the demand for equality of results between disparate groups as an absurdity found between no two groups anywhere. The overarching macro theme uniting these and other micro themes centers on a general questioning of accepted knowledge within scholarly circles. Maverick notes that “whether the subject was intellectual history, residential housing patterns, or language development in children, Sowell brought a certain skepticism of conventional theories to his analysis.”
Although Sowell’s personality served as a precondition for his ideas, he does not fall into a completely predictable pattern because of his peculiar traits. For instance, Sowell, once a committed Marxist, became an advocate of the free market. So his stubbornness did not tether him to bad ideas as stubbornness often does. And the fact that his teachers included Nobel Prize-winning economists Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, George Stigler, and Gary Becker rebuffs the temptation to imagine that Thomas Sowell wholly created Thomas Sowell. He left his mind open enough for others with sense to influence it.
Is there a biography better suited to satiate the laws of supply and demand articulated by its subject than Jason Riley’s Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell? Sowell’s vast and diverse intellectual output, devoured over the decades by a loyal readership, screamed for a biography a long time ago. Jason Riley delivers, in a pleasing style that arrives as a must-read for any fan of Thomas Sowell, what the public so wanted but inexplicably did not receive until now.
The intellectual community (which Sowell eviscerates) showing bias in its evolution from unwisely trying to debate him to unscrupulously trying to ignore him perversely ginned up demand (or is the lack of a biography their indirect attempt to poke holes in Sowell’s scholarship on Say’s Law?). So too did Sowell’s memoirs, in which Riley accurately points out that “the reader is kept at a certain remove.” Riley, in truth-in-advertising fashion, repeatedly labels his an intellectual biography. Sowell’s private nature surely dictated this. But the author interviewed his subject and others who know him, so occasionally he thankfully delves beyond that ideas–biography label he puts on his own work.