Eric Hoffer (July 25 1902 (or 1898) – May 21 1983) was an American social writer. He produced ten books and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983 by President of the United States Ronald Reagan. His first book, The True Believer, published in 1951, was widely recognized as a classic, receiving critical acclaim from both scholars and laymen.
Hoffer was born in New York City
in 1902, the son of German
immigrants. By the age of five, he could read in both German
. When he was age seven, his mother fell down a flight of stairs with Eric in her arms. Hoffer went blind for unknown medical reasons but later in life he said he thought it might have been due to trauma. ("I lost my sight at the age of seven. Two years before, my mother and I fell down a flight of stairs. She did not recover and died in that second year after the fall. I lost my sight and for a time my memory"). After his mother's death he was raised by a live-in relative or servant, a German woman named Martha. His eyesight inexplicably returned when he was fifteen. Fearing he would again go blind, he seized upon the opportunity to read as much as he could for as long as he could. His eyesight remained, and Hoffer never abandoned his habit of voracious reading.
Hoffer was a young man when his father, a cabinetmaker, died. The cabinetmaker's union paid for the funeral and gave Hoffer a little over three hundred dollars. Sensing that warm Los Angeles was the best place for a poor man, Hoffer took a bus there in 1920. He spent the next ten years on Los Angeles' skid row, reading, occasionally writing, and working odd jobs. On one such job, selling oranges door-to-door, he discovered he was a natural salesman and could easily make good money. Uncomfortable with this discovery, he quit after one day.
In 1931, he attempted suicide by drinking a solution of oxalic acid, but the attempt failed as he could not bring himself to swallow the poison. The experience gave him a new determination to live adventurously. It was then he left skid row and became a migrant worker. Following the harvests along the length of California, he collected library cards for each town near the fields where he worked, and living, by preference, “between the books and the brothels.” A seminal event for Hoffer occurred in the mountains where he had gone in search of gold. Snowed in for the winter, he read the Essays by Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne's book impressed Hoffer deeply, and he often made reference to its importance for him. He also developed a great respect for America's underclass, which, he declared, was “lumpy with talent.”
Hoffer was in San Francisco by 1941. He attempted to enlist in the Armed forces there in 1942 but was rejected because of a hernia. Wanting to contribute to the war effort, he found ample opportunity as a longshoreman on the docks of The Embarcadero. It was there he felt at home and finally settled down. He continued reading voraciously and soon began to write while earning a living loading and unloading ships. He continued this work until he retired at age 65.
Hoffer considered his best work to be The True Believer, a landmark explanation of fanaticism and mass movements. The Ordeal of Change is also a literary favorite. In 1970 he endowed the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Laconic Essay Prize for students, faculty, and staff at the University of California, Berkeley.
Hoffer was a charismatic individual and persuasive public speaker, but said that he didn’t really care about people. Despite authoring ten books and a newspaper column, in retirement Hoffer continued his robust life of the mind, thinking and writing alone, in an apartment near San Francisco’s waterfront. A longtime smoker, Hoffer developed emphysema towards the end of his life.
Hoffer's working class roots and "intellectuals"
Hoffer drew confidence and inspiration from his modest roots and working-class surroundings, seeing in it vast human potential. In a letter to Margaret Anderson in 1941, he wrote:
- My writing is done in railroad yards while waiting for a freight,
- in the fields while waiting for a truck, and at noon after lunch.
- Towns are too distracting.
Hoffer also took solace in being an outcast, believing that the outcasts have always been the pioneers of society. He did not consider himself an "intellectual", and scorned the term as descriptive of the allegedly anti-American academics of the West. He believed academics craved power but were denied it in the democratic countries of the West (though not in totalitarian countries, which Hoffer understood to be an intellectual's dream). Instead, Hoffer believed academics chose to bite the hand that fed them in their quest for power and influence.
Though Hoffer did not identify with "liberal intellectuals" and often criticized the radical ideology of many activists of the New Left, it would be wrong to characterize Hoffer's thinking as "conservative". Similarly, though his writings were often likened to the centrist political philosophies of mid 20th century liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., his thinking was not "liberal," either. Rather, his structural approach to analyzing and understanding mass movements and their ideologies often led Hoffer to consistently nonideological positions. As he said, "my writing grows out of my life just as a branch from a tree." When called an intellectual, he insisted that he was a longshoreman. He has since become known as the "longshoreman philosopher."
On the nature and origins of mass movements
Hoffer was among the first to recognize the central importance of self-esteem
to psychological well-being. While most recent writers focus on the benefits of a positive self-esteem, Hoffer focused on the consequences of a lack of self-esteem. Concerned about the rise of totalitarian governments, especially those of Adolf Hitler
and Joseph Stalin
, he tried to find the roots of these "madhouses" in human psychology. He postulated that fanaticism
and self-righteousness are rooted in self-hatred, self-doubt, and insecurity. As he describes in The True Believer
, he believed a passionate obsession with the outside world or with the private lives of other people is merely a craven attempt to compensate for a lack of meaning in one's own life.
The mass movements discussed in The True Believer include religious mass movements as well as political, including extensive discussions of Islam and Christianity. They also include seemingly benign mass movements which are neither political nor religious. A core principle in the book is Hoffer's insight that mass movements are interchangeable; he notes fanatical Nazis later becoming fanatical Communists, fanatical Communists later becoming fanatical anti-Communists, and Saul, persecutor of Christians, becoming Paul, a fanatical Christian himself. For the true believer the substance of the mass movement isn't so important as that he or she is part of that movement. Hoffer furthermore suggests that it is possible to head off the rise of an undesirable mass movement by substituting a benign mass movement, which will give those prone to joining movements an outlet for their insecurities.
Hoffer's work was original, staking out new ground largely ignored by dominant academic trends of his time. In particular, Hoffer's work was completely non-Freudian, at a time when almost all American psychology was confined to the Freudian paradigm. Many argue Hoffer's lack of a formal University education contributed to his independent thought, with his book remaining an insightful classic today. Hoffer appeared on Public Television in 1964 and then in two one-hour conversations on CBS with Eric Sevareid in the late 1960s. Both times he drew wide response for his patiently considered but unorthodox views.
Hoffer's insights into the consequences of a lack of self-esteem also informed his later writings. His 1963 book The Ordeal of Change
discusses change and modernization in society. His 1971 book First Things, Last Things
was a collection of essays published at a time in which young middle-class American youth were undergoing an increasing attraction to mass movements, whether political, religious, or subcultural, as well as a rapid increase in youth crime. In these and other books, Hoffer continued to build upon his earlier insights. In Hoffer's view, rapid change is not a positive thing for a society, and too rapid change can cause a regression in maturity for those who were brought up in a very different society than what that society has become. He noted that in the 1960s America had many young adults still living in extended adolescence. Seeking to explain the attraction of the New Left protest movements, he characterized them as the result of widespread affluence which, in his words, "is robbing a modern society of whatever it has left of puberty rites to routinize the attainment of manhood." He sees these puberty rites as essential for self-esteem, and notes that mass movements and juvenile mindsets tend to go together to the point that anyone, no matter what age, who joins a mass movement immediately begins to exhibit juvenile behavior. He further notes that the reason working class Americans did not by and large join in the 1960s protest movements and subcultures was they had entry into meaningful labor as an effective rite of passage out of adolescence, while both the very poor on welfare and the affluent are, in his words "prevented from having a share in the world's work and of proving their manhood by doing a man's work and getting a man's pay" and thus remained in a state of extended adolescence, lacking in necessary self-esteem, and prone to joining mass movements as a form of compensation. Hoffer suggested that this need for meaningful work as a rite of passage into adulthood could be fulfilled with a 2-year civilian national service program (not unlike the earlier programs during the Depression such as the Civilian Conservation Corps
), in which all young adults would do two years of work in fields such as construction
or natural resources
work. He writes: "The routinization of the passage from boyhood to manhood would contribute to the solution of many of our pressing problems. I cannot think of any other undertaking that would dovetail so many of our present difficulties into opportunities for growth."
Hoffer's papers, including 131 of the notebooks he carried in his pockets, were acquired in 2000 by the Hoover Institution
Archives. The papers fill 75 linear feet of shelf space. Because Hoffer cultivated an aphoristic
style, the unpublished notebooks (dated from 1949 to 1977) contain very significant work. Available for scholarly study since at least 2003, little of their contents has yet been published. A selection of fifty aphorisms, focusing on the development of unrealized human talents through the creative process
, appeared in the July 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine
- 1951 The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements ISBN 0-06-050591-5
- 1955 The Passionate State Of Mind, and Other Aphorisms ISBN 1-933435-09-7
- 1963 The Ordeal Of Change ISBN 1-933435-10-0
- 1967 The Temper Of Our Time
- 1969 Working And Thinking on The Waterfront; a journal, June 1958-May 1959
- 1971 First Things, Last Things
- 1973 Reflections on the Human Condition ISBN 1-933435-14-3
- 1976 In Our Time
- 1979 Before the Sabbath
- 1982 Between the devil and the dragon : the best essays and aphorisms of Eric Hoffer ISBN 0-06-014984-1
- 1983 Truth Imagined ISBN 1-933435-01-1
Books on Hoffer
- Eric Hoffer; an American Odyssey Tomkins, Calvin, New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1968 ISBN 0-8057-7359-2 Part of Twayne's United States authors series
- Hoffer's America, Koerner, James D., La Salle, Ill., Library Press, 1973 ISBN 0-912050-45-4
- Eric Hoffer, Baker, James Thomas. Boston : Twayne, 1982 ISBN 0-8057-7359-2 Twayne's United States authors series
Documentary on Eric Hoffer with Eric Sevareid, CBS, November 14