Arts & Entertainment
Philosopher, farm worker, rebel, man: Eric Hoffer’s many selves
Book review - American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of Eric Hoffer
Iconoclast: 1. a person who attacks established or traditional concepts, principles, laws, etc.
It is difficult to think of a more perfectly titled book than Tom Shachtman’s “American Iconoclast.” Eric Hoffer, the self-educated writer and thinker whose career ran the gamut from itinerant farm worker, to longshoreman, to respected author and Berkeley professor, was the very embodiment of a man who delighted in shaking his rather large fist in the face of convention. “Many writers might have jumped at the opportunity to voice their opinions to 25 million people, but cbs had not found it easy to secure Hoffer’s agreement. The ‘longshoreman philosopher,’ as his publisher had christened him, still worked on the docks and adhered to an ascetic lifestyle, residing alone in a small, Spartan walk-up in a rooming house atop one of Chinatown’s steep hills, with no car, no telephone and no television. Sometimes he did not even respond to telegrams delivered to his door.”
Writer Shachtman has carved out a notable career as a historian and social commentator. Author of well more than two dozen works, he has also produced and directed several important documentaries narrated by the likes of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and James Earl Jones. In “Iconoclast,” Shachtman draws on his years of experience as a writer and researcher to construct the image of a man that is immediate, descriptive and compelling. “Eric Hoffer was a nearly bald six-footer with a large head, burly physique, barrel chest and scarred workman’s hands, wearing green work pants and shirt, boots, jacket and leather cap.”
As a subject, Hoffer is something of a biographer’s dream. Not only did he experience the complete tapestry of 20th century events like the Great Depression, World War II and the Vietnam War, but Hoffer’s early life was one marked by hardship and trials. His mother died when he was seven. For the next seven years he was blind.As Shachtman illustrates, his personal loss, his extended period of disability and his lack of education — he never attended school — contributed to the insular individual he would later become. Moreover, Shachtman also quotes Hoffer’s close friend and confidant, Lili Osborne, who suggested that “an important element in his personality derived from his lack of religious education or orientation; he was, she observed, as ‘free’ of religion as he was of formal education. The absence of schooling and religion combined to render him un-socialized in a society that stressed the ability to get along with, learn from, and have intimate relationships with other people.”
The story of Hoffer’s years as an itinerant farm worker and longshoreman is interesting. But it is Shachtman’s investigation of Hoffer’s later career as a thinker, a writer and a social commentator that truly makes the book shine. Though his writing career spanned from the 1950s to the 1970s, many of Hoffer’s observations, like this passage from “the True Believer,” still seem eerily relevant to the modern condition: “All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance.”
As a historian, Shachtman proves a more than able tour guide: “Oakies, Arkies, and other migrants from the east changed the character of the throngs that were ‘on the bum’ and looking for work, making them into a mass migration — what Hoffer would later label a ‘mass vagabondage’ — that included many people who had previously held steady jobs, or owned farms and small businesses, or had been to college.”
More than mere historical narrative, however, “Iconoclast” also displays Shachtman’s own considerable talents as an observer and commentator: “The ability to write is comprised of equal measures of one’s powers of observation, unique viewpoint, word-sense, and curiosity. Hoffer’s notebooks show these qualities developing.” And: “Those tough times made novelists of many aspiring writers, but Hoffer’s experience as a long-term migrant worker — not just for a season, but for years on end — pushed him toward analysis rather than toward extended description.”
While the book is by no means the first examination of Hoffer’s life, what makes “iconoclast” different from previous biographies is Shachtman’s unique access to the Hoffer archive: a collection of material — much of which, like Hoffer’s personal diaries, had not been released before. Like an experienced prospector, Shachtman recognizes the value of this mother lode of information and uses it to good effect, skillfully crafting a narrative that reveals many sensitive and nuanced facets of his subject’s character. Indeed, so complete is the examination that “Iconoclast” seems at times less like a portrait of a man and more like a sculpture that can be viewed from many different angles.
One caveat: It is the nature of an iconoclast to push boundaries and challenge dogma. Hoffer was no exception. Thus, it is the rare 21st century reader that will not be offended by at least one of his views. For example, Hoffer’s uncomplimentary attitudes towards “negroes” put him out of step even with many of his own generation.
To Shachtman’s credit, however, he doesn’t paper over any of his subject’s warts and prejudices but honestly presents them all. The result is an excellent examination of a truly fascinating, complex and unique individual.
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