Tom Bethell: The Mystery of Eric Hoffer

Roundup: Talking About History

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to ScienceThe Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).

No one had heard of Eric Hoffer until he published The True Believer (1951), a set of reflections about mass movements and those attracted to them. He was also known as the Longshoreman Philosopher. From 1943 to 1967 he worked under Harry Bridges, the labor boss on the San Francisco waterfront. After The True Believer he wrote a number of books, mostly short, consisting of his articles or aphorisms. He became an adjunct professor at U.C. Berkeley at the time of the Free Speech movement and was interviewed by Eric Sevareid for CBS. He died in 1983, his age probably 85.

But we know very little about his life before the mid-1930s. That is where the mystery comes in. We know that he moved to San Francisco soon after Pearl Harbor and rented a room in a low-rent district. There he wrote The True Believer, using a plank for a desk. Before that he was a migrant worker in California's Central Valley—stoop labor picking fruit and vegetables.

In 1934 he showed up at a federal homeless shelter in El Centro, California, close to the Mexican border. A trucker drove him there from San Diego, where he was so hungry that he ate cabbage "cow style" at a wholesale food depot. Where was he before San Diego? I believe there is great uncertainty. It may be that he had crossed the border from Mexico....

Hoffer said he spent the first 20 years of his life in the Bronx. But everything he said could fit onto two pages. Nothing can be confirmed. He never gave his Bronx address, never went to school, identified no friends. He said he went blind for eight years, hence no school. Then he recovered his sight. Ancestry sites have turned up nothing and when Lili's son Eric once told Hoffer that he felt like "hiring a genealogist in New York to look up your father," whose name was Knut, Hoffer replied:

"Are you sure you really want to know?" Like there was some dark stuff.…I don't know. There's stuff happened that he didn't want anybody to know. He had a real casual and dreadful way of letting something slip. "Are you sure you want to know?"

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