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The Dockworker Is In

A second life for America’s “longshoreman philosopher”

When I tell people I’ve been writing a biography of Eric Hoffer, the name brings immediate recognition from those over fifty-five and puzzled looks from those whose hair is not gray. Hoffer—the “longshoreman philosopher”—and his books were wildly popular from the 1950s to the 1970s. The columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, who met him early on, observed that Hoffer struck a chord with all who were perplexed by the times, those who had been “watching the apparent madhouse of the modern world with growing confusion of spirit. Then they read Hoffer, and suddenly there’s a framework for it, and a sense about it.”

Hoffer was an early star of public broadcasting, and the subject of two one-hour conversations with Eric Sevareid on CBS, in 1967 and in 1969, that drew 25 million viewers apiece. But by 1983, when President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, shortly before Hoffer’s death, his books were no longer in the canon of what young people read to learn how the world works.

Then came September 11, 2001. What kind of people would commit suicide in order to wreak mass murder? everybody wondered. What drove them to it? Readers who remembered Hoffer’s famous work of postwar social psychology, The True Believer, and those who discovered it anew, found that his observations on the followers of communism, fascism, and other isms applied equally to Al Qaeda members. True believers, Hoffer wrote, were the mainstays of mass movements that demanded “blind faith and singlehearted allegiance,” people filled with “fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance,” and more than willing to die for their cause.

No wonder, then, that after 2001 Hoffer’s books were reprinted and the archives that had been sitting in his best friend’s attic for twenty years were placed at the Hoover Institution, catalogued, and opened. I found them and jumped into a trove of handwritten notebooks and diaries from the 1930s onward, material that enabled me to write the first complete account of the man and his work, American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of Eric Hoffer (Hopewell, 2011).

Hoffer was more than a one-book wonder. In volume after volume, he probed the roots of human behavior, emerging with insights such as this one, from The Ordeal of Change (1963): “Blind faith is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves; insatiable desire a substitute for hope; accumulation a substitute for growth; fervent hustling a substitute for purposeful action; and pride a substitute for unattainable self-respect.” All of history was within his grasp, from ancient Sumer to Revolutionary France to the travels of Buddha. Yet he could also be deeply personal. Working and Thinking on the Waterfront, his 1958–59 journal, is one of the most intellectually alive and emotionally revealing diaries of the century.

Calvin Tomkins, seeking to profile Hoffer for The New Yorker, told his editor that this “solitary, self-taught man” had “come near to the academic dream of encompassing all knowledge in an age of specialization. His books—really one long essay built on aphorisms—seem likely to take their place among the few truly original structures in twentieth century thought.”

Tall, nearly bald, with a blocky manual laborer’s body and a taste for good wine, tobacco, and Beethoven, Hoffer favored workmen’s overalls, boots, and leather cap. That was the outfit he wore when he chatted with President Lyndon Johnson for an hour in the Rose Garden over root beers, and he wore it even after retiring from the waterfront—at age sixty-nine, and against his will—and becoming a fixture in the UC Berkeley poli sci department, where he held court one afternoon a week.

He was unique in American letters in being completely unschooled and in earning his living through low-paying, low-status, backbreaking toil as a day laborer, migrant field hand, and San Francisco dockworker. As a child in the Bronx, at the turn of the twentieth century, Hoffer was blind for seven years, and shortly after he regained his sight in his teens, he was orphaned. He spent the next three decades reading and doing manual labor before bursting on the scene in 1951 with The True Believer, which became a favorite of President Dwight Eisenhower and, later, of President Johnson. His work was accessible, but not dumbed down; the philosopher Bertrand Russell called The True Believer “as sound intellectually as it is timely politically.”

Hoffer’s method of writing was to pose questions for himself and then go looking for the answers. In one such inquiry, he wondered whether the masses, even when newly energized by freedom, had ever created a civilization. They had never done so in the history of the world, he decided, until the birth of the United States of America. While other writers celebrated Jefferson, Hamilton, and the “founding fathers,” Hoffer asserted that the United States was the only society not shaped by an elite: its principal builders were the rabble—the unwanted of Europe, who had found their way here and made this country into a colossus.

Similarly, he insisted that our defects were not those of a commercially based civilization—the charge leveled by novels like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and social analyses like The Lonely Crowd—but the defects of a mass civilization. To wit: “worship of success, the cult of the practical, the identification of quality with quantity, the addiction to sheer action, the fascination with the trivial.” Hoffer then set out a balancing list of America’s virtues: “a superb dynamism, an unprecedented diffusion of skills, a genius for organization and teamwork, a flexibility that makes possible an easy adjustment to the most drastic change, an ability to get things done with a minimum of tutelage and supervision, an unbounded capacity for fraternization.” Those descriptions of our faults and virtues resonate even fifty years later.

Hoffer’s life and work show us a different side of the American dream: not the scrabble from rags to riches, but the equally important climb from ignorance and lack of schooling to the independent acquisition of knowledge and the generating of insights about the world that are helpful to others.

Tom Shachtman, A63, has written more than a dozen adult nonfiction books about U.S. and world history, sociology, and economics, and has co-written a dozen more. He is also a documentary filmmaker and the author of nine books for children. In 2010, he won a science writing award from the American Institute of Physics for the script of a two-hour Nova documentary based on his book Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold (Houghton Mifflin). Keep up with him at www.tomshachtman.com.

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