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The Longshoreman Philosopher
By Tom Bethell
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2012 Tom Bethell
All rights reserved.
The Enigma of Eric Hoffer
My life is not important. It's not even very interesting. Ideas are all that's important.
— ERIC HOFFER
Interview with biographer James Koerner
Eric Hoffer was unknown to the public in 1951 when he published his first book, The True Believer. Almost overnight, the San Francisco dockworker became a public figure. Recognized as a highly original thinker, he became known as the Longshoreman Philosopher. A 1956 profile in Look magazine identified Hoffer as "Ike's Favorite Author," elevating this blue-collar working man to the level of President Eisenhower's bedside table.
It wasn't just Eisenhower who appreciated Hoffer's intelligence and wit. Public figures, ranging from the author and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to the philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell, praised his work. Since September 11, 2001, some commentators have noted that Hoffer's analysis of "the true believer" and mass movements in general — although written with Hitler's and Stalin's followers in mind — applied equally well to Islamic fundamentalists.
Hoffer worked on the San Francisco waterfront for almost a quarter-century. After The True Believer, he published ten more books; later in life he often (although not always) said that his first book was his best. Then, in one of those only-in-America stories that Hoffer himself so loved, this self-made man, this unashamed patriot and fan of Ronald Reagan, became an adjunct professor at the University of California — Berkeley during the Free Speech movement.
Hoffer's place in American politics and intellectual thought is an enigmatic one. Much of his writing was in the form of aphorisms, short, pithy remarks that touched on eternal truths. But he was also capable of the sustained thought and expression that went into The True Believer and his other books and newspaper columns. Hoffer was interested in probing the depths of human behavior and discovering the motivations behind the twentieth century's wars and revolutions. Wary of public praise, he resembled the prophets of the Old Testament, free to make people of high and low estate uncomfortable with his insights.
Little is known about Hoffer's early years. Hoffer offered interviewers a rough outline of his first four decades, but his various versions contradicted each other. His date of birth is uncertain, often given as 1902 but more likely 1898. He claimed his German accent came from Alsatian immigrant parents, but it was often described as Bavarian. And the account he often gave of losing his sight at an early age and then regaining it several years later doesn't fit with some of his other versions or with medical probability. The man who startled readers with his insight into the truths of revolutionary movements took particular trouble to conceal the truth about his own background. Quite possibly, he was born in Germany and never became a legal resident of the United States.
Eric Hoffer's life divides into two roughly equal parts. The first part is from birth to his move to San Francisco after Pearl Harbor. The second is his life in San Francisco. Before Pearl Harbor, without exception, Hoffer's life is documented only by what he said or wrote. It is the same with the research and interviews of others. Hoffer was their sole source. His best friend, Lili Osborne, summarized the difficulty: "All we know about Eric's early life is what he told us."
She didn't mean just the first few years either, but the first thirty-five years. He described his life in those decades many times. But nothing can be corroborated. After he moved to San Francisco, his life is well known from the recollections of those who knew him, from press coverage, magazine articles, televised interviews, and public appearances. The first half is barely documented at all.
It's as though he stepped out of the San Francisco fog in the 1940s with stories to tell about his past, but nothing that can be verified. He died in 1983, still in San Francisco.
Lili Osborne first met Hoffer in 1950, perhaps six months before The True Believer was published. Over the next thirty-three years she knew him better than anyone in the world. But, she said: "I never met anyone who knew Eric in his earlier life."
For a twentieth-century American to have such an utterly untraceable past is beyond remarkable. It's bound to raise the question: was Hoffer born and reared in this country? Despite considerable publicity surrounding publication of The True Believer — along with reviews, Hoffer's photograph was printed in newspapers around the country — no one is known to have come forward to say that he and Hoffer had once been friends. No one has claimed him as a childhood companion. No one volunteered that he and Hoffer had been associated in any way. Nor did his national television appearances in the 1960s prompt any such claims or reminiscences.
A sharp dividing line does occur in January 1934, when Hoffer joined a federal homeless shelter in El Centro, California. Thereafter, and throughout his time as a migrant worker, he provides us with a wealth of detail that is absent from his account of life in the Bronx and Los Angeles. He still provides no names, but the flood of detail marks an abrupt change that is not otherwise explained.
The Canonical Life
In summary, this is Hoffer's early life as he described it to journalists, biographers, and historians who interviewed him in the decades after he became a public figure through publication of The True Believer:
He was born in New York City, his parents having come to the United States from Alsace-Lorraine at the turn of the century. A German woman called Martha Bauer accompanied his parents and all four lived in the Bronx. Hoffer never gave the address. His taciturn father, Knut, a "methodical, serious, German cabinet maker" or "self educated carpenter," brought books with him from Europe, but Eric had "hardly any conversation with my father all my life." Once, Knut took the 11-year-old Eric to a concert in New York and they heard Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, but no other details are given.
A "village atheist," according to his son, Knut Hoffer had "all the paraphernalia, all the books that a German intellectual ought to have. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, books on medicine, the works."
These books were kept in a cupboard with glass doors, and Hoffer remembers pulling out the books and classifying them according to size, color, and language. He spoke German in the home and he taught himself "to read both English and German at the age of five."
His mother, Elsa (a small woman), was in the habit of carrying Eric (a large child) around the house. One day, when he was six, she fell down a flight of stairs while she was carrying him. Two years later, she died and Hoffer went blind. His blindness lasted for eight years. When asked, "Did the fall cause those things?" he responded, "I don't know." Hoffer also didn't remember the fall itself, nor could he recall whether his sight returned suddenly or gradually. In an early account he said that he went "practically blind," followed by a "gradual improvement."
His father had no money for doctors, and Eric's blindness meant that he "never attended school or received any sort of formal education."
Martha Bauer was a "Bavarian peasant" and his German accent came from her. Young Eric slept in her bed. "We always slept together, always." As to the restoration of his sight, he doubted at times whether he welcomed it. Before, he had been fed, cared for, and loved by Martha. "Then I got my sight back and there was — separation." She also told him that all his family was short-lived and that he would die at age forty. "I believed her absolutely," he said.
Hoffer's biographers, Calvin Tomkins and James Koerner, describe only one scene outside the family house. It was a second-hand bookstore on the same block in the Bronx. It had acquired a library from an estate, and in the years after his sight returned Hoffer treated it as his library. There, he became "something of an expert in botany." His father would leave him a little pocket money on a shelf and sometimes, to keep the bookstore owner happy, Hoffer would buy the book he was reading.
He was "seized with an enormous hunger for the printed word," and developed "the bad habit of swallowing any book I liked in one gulp instead of savoring it slowly." He was reading ten or twelve hours a day, in a hurry because he didn't know if he would go blind again.
"Reading was my only occupation and pastime. I was not a normal American youth — no friends, no games, no interest in machines, no plans and ambitions, no sense of money, no grasp of the practical."
In the bookstore, he saw Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. The word was familiar because his father had once said within earshot: "What can you do with an idiot child?" It is the sole comment that Eric attributed to his father. Hoffer said he later read the novel a dozen times.
Martha Bauer returned to Germany in 1919 and Hoffer's father died in 1920. His death remained "rather hazy in my mind." But Eric received $300 from Knut's fraternal society, and he decided to move to California. He had heard that it was a good place for poor people. When he left, according to Koerner, he took along "a huge basket of books that he had bought at the second hand bookstore." In a letter to Margaret Anderson, to whom he dedicated The True Believer, he said that he brought with him "several trunks full of books."
He made his way to skid row in Los Angeles, where he "lived life as a tourist." Because he believed Martha's claim that he would die at forty, any plans were pointless.
His life was books, blindness, recovered sight, more books, and nothing but books. Except for his parents, the only person identified is Martha Bauer. Outside the house, no one at all is identified. His mother is not described or quoted. As to the father-son relationship, the only comment each made about the other, in Hoffer's account, seems to have been "idiot child" and "village atheist."
Los Angeles in the 1920s
Hoffer said he stayed in Los Angeles for ten years. He took a cheap room near the public library, paid rent in advance, and began to read. In fact, he spent "every minute reading." Hoffer knew how to live frugally, but when the money was gone he sold his books and a leather jacket. Then he "began to go hungry."
His hunger episode appears in every account of his life. He is on Main Street, staring through a pet shop window. Two pigeons engage in a courtship ritual and Hoffer becomes so absorbed that he forgets his hunger. Then he is aware that he had forgotten it, and this inspires him. "Hunger wasn't so terrible. It wasn't so mysterious after all." He enters a nearby restaurant where he offers to scrub pots and pans in exchange for a meal. The owner accepts, and a fellow dishwasher tells him where he can get a job.
The State Free Employment Agency is Hoffer's next snapshot. He repeated the story often. It was a big hall with maybe five hundred men sitting on benches; in a booth was the dispatcher. His phone would ring and he would call out:
"A man to move furniture."
"A man to rake leaves."
Hands would shoot up, and someone would get the job. How did the dispatcher make his choice? Hoffer approached the problem scientifically and by trial and error found ways to improve his odds. If he sat not in the front row but in the sixth, looked as though he didn't have a care in the world, and carried a book with a red cover, his chances improved. That way he could get enough jobs to sustain his solitary, bookish life.
"I lived that way for nearly ten years, reading and thinking and making a living on skid row," he told Tomkins.
He immersed himself not just in books but in textbooks. He studied Hebrew. He read chemistry, zoology, and botany. Why should the stem of a plant grow upward and the roots downward? He came across Strasburger's Textbook of Botany, a classic published in thirty editions, and by chance he also discovered a slim botanical dictionary, in German, written "as a special aid to the study of Strasburger's textbook. It never failed me. To master this material I had to take notes."
Hoffer also studied chemistry, using an eminent textbook by Joel Hildebrand, Principles of Chemistry (first published in 1918). Hildebrand, a scholar of international renown, lived to be 101. He even had a chemistry lab at UC — Berkeley when Hoffer himself, years later, had an adjunct position there.
By coincidence, James Koerner knew Professor Hildebrand. He arranged for Hoffer to meet him at Berkeley. So it seems likely that Hoffer really had studied Hildebrand's textbook. Koerner photographed their encounter, but he did not report any of their conversation.
Returning to the Los Angeles of the 1920s, Hoffer reappears as an orange salesman. His boss drove him to the suburb of Westwood and told him to knock on doors. His commission was 25 percent. At first tongue-tied, Hoffer became an exceptional salesman. The housewives could not resist his pitch. But he was tempted to lie, claiming, for example, that he had grown the oranges on his own farm, with needy wife and children to feed. He was hooked by this deception, so he quit. The owner "blew his top," Hoffer said later, when told that his best orange salesman was leaving.
We come now to a man whom Hoffer identified as Farbstein in early accounts and Shapiro later. Hoffer said that he worked in his "pipe yard" for two years and proved to be a good worker — "quick, conscientious and quiet," in Hoffer's self-evaluation. Farbstein or Shapiro, the only person whom Hoffer identifies in his ten years in Los Angeles, was attentive to Hoffer, solicitous of his diet and his reading, and paid him well. Hoffer admired him.
In Truth Imagined, published in 1983, Hoffer adds more details about this man's Jewishness (by now he is Shapiro) and Hoffer's own interest in the Jews and in the Old Testament. Shapiro, said Hoffer, owned Ernest Renan's History of the People of Israel, and recommended it to Hoffer. The work (in five volumes) was "hard to get but Shapiro had it in his library." Years later, Hoffer himself acquired these rare volumes, and they were in his bookcase when he died. An oft-quoted source in Hoffer's books, Renan was a major influence on Hoffer's intellectual life.
Hoffer experienced Shapiro's death in 1929 as a liberation. He appreciated the man's solicitousness; but now that Hoffer had some savings he wanted to resume his solitary life.
He decided to "spend a few months of leisure, and then commit suicide. Just like that!" He regularly ate supper at a cafeteria on Hill Street. By now he was studying the Bible and this odd routine continued for weeks. But the thought that once his money ran out he would have to return to work, "day in day out till death," filled him with weariness.
He read up on poisons in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and resolved to take a fatal dose of oxalic acid. After a final day spent "rereading for hours the tales of Jacob and his sons, chuckling over the vivid details" in the Bible, he set forth along Figueroa Street until "oil derricks like gibbets suddenly loomed ahead." He removed the stopper from his bottle of poison and took a mouthful.
"It was as if a million needles pricked the inside of my mouth. In a blaze of anger I spat the oxalic acid out, continued spitting and coughing, and while wiping my lips I let the bottle fly and heard its thud in the dark."
Thereupon he "rejoined the human race." Bells and street cars were ringing in his ears. Now, all "the handiwork of man seemed part of my flesh and bone." He entered a cafeteria with a ravenous appetite. Recovered now, he had reached a turning point. He knew he must get onto the open road.
On that day "a workingman died and a tramp was born."
He packed some things in a knapsack and walked south out of Los Angeles. His heart was light. A German in a shiny new car en route to Anaheim gave him a lift. Asked where he was going, Hoffer didn't know. The German gave him a lecture on the need for a purpose in life.
"A man must have a goal," he said. "It is not good to live without hope." He quoted Goethe (in German) as saying: "Hope lost, all is lost; it were better not to have been born."
Hoffer didn't believe Goethe could have said that, so he checked the quotation at the Anaheim library. He found that the correct quote was "courage lost," not "hope lost." That was a very different proposition; to Hoffer it sounded more like Goethe.
A sign nearby said: "Dishwasher wanted." Hoffer got the job, stayed on for several weeks, and became acquainted with some of the customers. Among them was the German driver who had misquoted Goethe; Hoffer told him of his error. The customers liked Hoffer and called him "Happy" because of his "good cheer under all conditions."
Excerpted from Eric Hoffer by Tom Bethell. Copyright © 2012 Tom Bethell. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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