The Temper of Our Time
Working and Thinking on the Waterfront
In September, 1967—fifteen years after his first and best-known book The True Believer had been published—Eric Hoffer, the San Francisco longshoreman and author, made his debut on national television. The broadcast, an hour-long interview, “made millions of confused and troubled Americans feel very much better about their country. He had pulled aside the veils of supposed sophistication and, in new ways, showed them again the old truths about America and why they remain alive and valid,” the interviewer, Eric Sevareid, observes in his Introduction to Mr. Tomkins’s book. It was rerun two months later and led to an agreement whereby Mr. Hoffer and Mr. Sevareid are to broadcast a similar dialogue each year. Meanwhile, Tomkins reports, Hoffer remains in touch with his public through “a syndicated column of Hoffer ‘Reflections’ (culled mostly from his published writings and now appearing in more than seventy newspapers).”
Tomkins subtitles his essay “An American Odyssey”; which is misleading, since Hoffer and Odysseus have such different styles. Odysseus, though reputedly wily, was gregarious, loved power in a matter-of-fact way, and was more manipulative than charismatic. He was said to have been deeply involved as a leader in the events of his day. Hoffer, who came late to fame, continues to lead a reclusive and Spartan rather than Achaean life, is deeply ambivalent about power and fears to use his remarkable and demonstrated ability to sway crowds by oratory. The most explicit political suggestion in The Temper of Our Time calls for “a pilot state made up of a slice of Northern California and a slice of Southern Oregon, and run by the University of California. I would call it the state of the unemployed, and anyone crossing into it would automatically become a student.” Intended to relieve the stresses of automation, this proposal might rather help to solve the problems of trespass and activism among students that so trouble our national leadership. But the voice is not the voice of Odysseus.
If Hoffer’s career be no Odyssey, it is certainly American. The phrase “only in America” is as applicable to his life as to Harry Golden’s or Caryl Chessman’s or Sitting Bull’s. It is quintessentially American as an account of the rise to fame and influence of a poor man, for most of his life a migrant worker and then a longshoreman—though Hoffer’s rejection of the wealth he has recently won, assigning it in trust for the son of a family which has provided him the only close relationships of his adult life is less characteristic. It is American in its late flowering, for, as Erik Erikson has pointed out and Richard Nixon has confirmed, our society is reluctant to foreclose completely even the most unpromising lines of development. It is American in the way Mr. Hoffer’s genuine talents and perceptions have been exploited as a pseudo-event in direct contradiction to their implicit meaning; for if the American masses are indeed “lumpy with talent” as …