Thursday, March 22, 2012

`People Who Wanted to Be Left Alone'

“He was an independent thinker because he was independent of influence beyond his experience, study, and observation. No think tank, little magazine, or political party owned his opinion. His ideas stood alone because he did. The free agent’s originality stemmed from his time away from people and the devices they use to communicate. By being unplugged, the urban monk made people want to plug into him.”

A day after reading Bill Vallicella on the “perils of autodidacticism,” in which he identifies Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) as a self-educated exception to the rule, I happened upon Daniel J. Flynn’s Blue Collars Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America (ISI Books, 2011). Flynn profiles Hoffer (the passage above is about him) and an unlikely assortment of others representing a “well-rounded, educated citizenry” – Will and Ariel Durant, Mortimer Adler, Milton Friedman and Ray Bradbury. He defines them like this: 

“A blue-collar intellectual is a thinker who hails from a working-class background, and whose intellectual work targets, in part or whole, a mass audience.” 

A caveat: Flynn is a writer of uneven merits. (Go here to read his introduction.) He shows non-Hoffer-like symptoms of autodidacticism – a hectoring tone, occasional defensiveness, indifference to matters of style, hints of what Vallicella calls crankiness – and his choice of subjects is dubious. He does little to bolster his case or make working-class thinkers attractive by highlighting the Durants, Adler and Bradbury, though I’m pleased whenever someone revives the memory of the “unschooled but well-educated” Hoffer. 

I’ve described the impact reading Montaigne’s essays had on Hoffer, and suspect that Hoffer had a comparable impact on me. I discovered his newspaper column when I was sixteen, and soon moved on to his books, in particular The True Believer (1951). My family was strictly working class and the only people I knew who had gone to college were teachers and doctors. Hoffer had been a migrant worker and a longshoreman. His voice was clear, pared-down, common-sensical, rough-edged and often belligerent – a working-class voice without pretensions. He made it seem possible that an ironworker’s son could actually generate ideas and learn how to express them effectively. In part, I credit Hoffer with making me a newspaper reporter – that is, a professional writer and skeptic. Flynn calls him “the last free American.” Over time I discovered a temperamental kinship with Hoffer -- indifference to fashion, aversion to the collective, ease in solitude. In Reflections on the Human Condition (1973) he writes: 

“The history of this country was made largely by people who wanted to be left alone. Those who could not thrive when left to themselves never felt at ease in America.”

A young woman who works part-time in our office as a graphic designer was born and raised in Venezuela. On Wednesday, she had her hair done, put on a dress and became a naturalized American citizen. “America is always good to me,” she said. I quizzed her later about the Bill of Rights, she asked me about Franklin D. Roosevelt, I asked her about Simon Bolivar, and I remembered another observation from Reflections on the Human Condition: 

“It almost seems that nobody can hate America as much as native Americans. America needs new immigrants to love and cherish it.”


William A. Sigler said...

There's only the reservation, with its think tanks, little magazines and political parties, and the fugitive space outside of it, where those who genuinely love America still roam, still trying to be left alone.

Anonymous said...

I discovered Eric Hoffer by way of his newspaper columns, and have since read all of his books. It's cheering to see that his books are still in print and that his newspaper columnns were collected and published at the end of last year.


Jackson said...
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Anonymous said...

Flynn was on C-Span 2 this past weekend... My favorite channel for weekends in the studio.