In an age of obsessive self-advertisement, when people document and share with the world each emotional twitch, Eric Hoffer’s autobiographical opacity is worthy of emulation. Even his date of birth is uncertain, as are his ancestry and the basic chronology of his early life. Hoffer’s biographer, Tom Bethell, in an article in the April issue of The American Spectator, writes in his first paragraph: “He died in 1983, his age probably 85.” Bethell continues:
“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…”
Cynics will assume Hoffer had something to hide, but reticence isn’t always suspect. Besides, mystery is the cement that holds together every family. Before my grandparents’ generation, only a vacuum remains. I don’t know my paternal grandmother’s full name or what year she emigrated from Poland. I don’t know whether she and my grandfather met in the old country or in the U.S., and she died (I think) six years before I was born. Transparency was no virtue and genealogy was a rich man’s amusement.
Self-creation, fashioning one’s identity from scratch and turning it into a species of myth, is a proud American innovation. Think of Franklin, Lincoln, Whitman, Twain and Louis Armstrong. Heredity is not fate. That Hoffer knew Hebrew and may have been Jewish (and may or may not have known it) is fascinating, but tells us little about his passionate love of Israel, another nation created almost from scratch by its founders. That Hoffer may have been cagey about his past, or perhaps ignorant about portions of it, is of little consequence. In America, a man’s life is what he makes of it, and Hoffer claimed he had made of his “a number of good sentences,” which is more than most writers ever accomplish.
[Thanks to Dave Lull for alerting me to the article by Tom Bethell, whose Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher was recently published by the Hoover Institution Press.]