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 he maintains, the fact that a longshoreman should display them cannot be regarded as prodigious.
But most of all he is American in his enthusiastic trust in technology and his less enthusiastic attitudes toward colored peoples and intellectuals. His current vogue, I believe, is more fully attributable to these views than to the worthier elements of his work, which have, by now, been evident for seventeen years. But those worthier elements—especially his shrewd insights into the psychology of mass movements—also serve to make his ethnocentrism palatable and, in 1969, eminently popular.
Hoffer is the most ethnocentric of writers. Ethnocentrism is not the same thing as racial prejudice; though racial prejudice cannot exist without it. But the essence of ethnocentrism consists, not in hostility to other races or cultures, but in the unquestioned assumption that one’s own race and culture are the proper source of all norms; not necessarily superior, just “the way it spozed to be.” The concluding paragraph of Tomkins’s book quotes Hoffer as stating:
I’ve never had the urge to see other places, other countries. In fact, I’ve only been outside this country once in my life, for five minutes. It was in the Thirties. I was working in the fields, down near the Mexican border, and one day out of curiosity I walked across the bridge at Mexicali. I took one look down an alley, saw the cobblestone streets, the crumbling buildings, smelled the stink, felt the weight of it crushing me down—and I turned around and ran back over the bridge. I felt as if I’d be put in jail or something and never get out. No, you just cannot conceive what this country has meant to the common man.
What it has meant to the common man has been the opportunity to master his environment through technical ingenuity and the innate capacity for organizing himself to take advantage of his opportunities. “The opportunities in America are for learning, experience, money, achievement, comfort, freedom, but not power.” And difficulties stem not from the dynamics of specific social institutions—which Hoffer never considers—nor from actual conflicts of interest which he does not analyze or discuss, but from nature herself—recalcitrant, but purposeless and incapable of ideology.
Humanization means breaking away from nature, getting out from underneath the iron necessities which dominate nature. By the same token, dehumanization means the reclamation of man by nature…. Unlike other animals, man was not a born technician with a built-in tool kit…. Yet this misbegotten creature has made himself lord of the globe. He has evolved fabulous substitutes for the instincts and the specialized organs that he lacked, and rather than adjust himself to the world he has changed the world to fit him. This surely is the supreme miracle.
This miracle has been accomplished not only without the aid of intellectuals, but against their treacherous opposition:
In the nineteenth century the “men of words” were not in the fight and, indeed, a great many of them sided with nature against man. It was precisely at the moment when the Industrial Revolution forged the weapons for a total victory over nature that scientists, poets, philosophers, and historians, seized with a mysterious impulse, began to proclaim with one voice the littleness of man and his powerlessness to shape his fate…. Instead of being in the vanguard of the Promethean struggle we find the most gifted members of the species on the sidelines jeering at the clamorous multitude that set out to tame and straddle God’s creation.
The intellectuals entered the nineteenth century flushed with the conviction that they were the new makers of history. Had not their words set in motion the earth-shaking events of the French Revolution?… Everywhere the intellectuals were strutting, posturing, and declaiming, each fancying himself a man of destiny. Then one morning they woke up to discover that power had fallen into the hands of their middle-class relatives, their lowbrow brothers, uncles, in-laws, who had not only taken possession of everything they could lay their hands on, but aspired to impose their values and tastes upon the whole society. The revulsion from a middle-class society that came to dominate the nineteenth century alienated the intellectuals from the machine age.
For Hoffer, then—who has certainly misunderstood the legend of Prometheus—the trahison des clercs consists in their refusal to join or even accept the middle and working classes’ struggle for self-improvement through technical development. Hoffer’s polar opposite, whom he never mentions, is Norman O. Brown, not Condorcet. Hoffer is at his soundest in discussing two related issues that form the core of his thought; the need for modernization as an unavoidable condition for technological development; and the nature of the particular psychological dislocations imposed by The Ordeal of Change, as he called one of his other books. He expresses very clearly the relationship between impotence, deprivation, and fanaticism on the one hand, and social dislocation and deprivation of opportunity on the other, which combine to form The True Believer. While he never uses the term—which is odd, since he shows some familiarity with Nietzsche—his grasp of the role of Ressentiment in social movements is as good as can be found in popular American writing. “It is doubtful whether the oppressed ever fight for freedom. They fight for pride and for power—power to oppress others. The oppressed want above all to imitate their oppressor; they want to retaliate.”
This, I think, is true—it is certainly what I want when I feel oppressed. But this does not mean that the oppression is unreal; or that it can be relieved without destroying objectively oppressive social institutions. Revolutionaries are indeed often meanspirited; but revolution is nevertheless sometimes necessary to alter a social system which has no capacity to alter itself and which is destroying people—whether they be its own members or its external victims. Still, Hoffer’s doubts that revolution is likely to reduce oppression are historically well-founded. What is much more disturbing is his assumption that salvation for everyone lies in the adoption of Western technics of mastery, his conviction that “The Industrial Revolution forged the weapons for a total victory over nature”—this, in 1967. He is convinced that people with the technical know-how must run the world as a matter of course and are not even dominating other people by doing so, and he totally ignores political and economic process. This is what makes it possible for Hoffer to deny that America offers opportunities for power: to praise Lyndon Johnson during his TV interview with Sevareid, and to describe his subsequent meeting with a grateful President by saying: “Oh, I treated him like a beautiful woman; I had eyes only for Johnson. And I’m not a young girl to be bowled over by these things, but that day, for the first time in my life, I had a sense of history.”
There are, however, many revealing indices of Hoffer’s sense of history in his more recent work; and these establish very clearly the consistency of his conviction that the native in his stinking habitat must either be directed into the paths of technical mastery or shoved aside with contempt. The occasion for this review is the publication of Hoffer’s daybook, Working and Thinking on the Waterfront, which he kept for just a year, from June, 1958 to May 1959, and has just published a decade later. On January 15, 1959, he noted
I find it significant that the recent riots in the Belgian Congo were led by one Joseph Kasavubu, a graduate of a Catholic seminary. The Belgian administration had taken great pains to prevent the coming into being of the merely educated. Education in the Congo was linked intimately with the acquisition of practical skills. There were hardly any native journalists, lawyers, or university graduates. But the seminaries of the Catholic Church produced that which the colonial administration labored so hard to prevent.
Sorry about that. It should not be impossible for the CIA to infiltrate the Consistory but one had always assumed it would not be necessary. Hoffer’s conception of what he calls the “Negro revolution in America” is not notably more profound in its perception of the underlying social dynamics:
The simple fact is that the people I have lived and worked with all my life, and who make up about 60 percent of the population outside the South, have not the least feeling of guilt toward the Negro. The majority of us started working for a living in our teens, and we have been poor all our lives. Most of us had only a rudimentary education. Our white skin brought us no privileges and no favors. For more than twenty years I worked in the fields of California with Negroes, and now and then for Negro contractors. On the San Francisco waterfront, where I spent the next twenty years, there are as many black longshoremen as white. My kind of people does not feel that the world owes us anything, or that we owe anybody—white, black, or yellow—a damn thing. We believe that the Negro should have every right we have: the right to vote, the right to join any union open to us, the right to live, work, study, and play anywhere he pleases. But he can have no special claims on us, and no valid grievances against us. He has certainly not done our work for us. Our hands are more gnarled and workbroken than his, and our faces more lined and worn….
Even when it tries to be gentle, the voice of the Negro revolution grates on us and fills us with scorn. The Negro seems to say: “Lift me up in your arms. I am an abandoned and abused child. Adopt me as your favorite son. Feed me, clothe me, educate me, love and baby me. You must do it right away or I shall set your house on fire or rot at your doorsteps and poison the air you breathe.”
To sum up: The Negro revolution is a fraud. It has no faith in the character and potentialities of the Negro masses. It has no taste for real enemies, real battle-grounds, and desperate situations. It wants cheap victories and the easy way.
This quotation slightly stresses the harshness of Hoffer’s position; it is followed by a passage in which he acknowledges that “This does not mean that the Negro is not in real trouble and that he has no desperate problems which others do not have to face”—a concession for which, however, neither Eldridge Cleaver nor Frantz Fanon would be very grateful. But both Cleaver and Fanon would be—by Hoffer’s definition and, certainly, in comparison to Hoffer—intellectuals, and hence highly suspect. In any case, Working and Thinking on the Waterfront is even less ambivalent. Why Hoffer chose to publish this entry of January 26, 1959:
How do the happenings in Africa affect the Negro in America? Were I a Negro the thing would weigh on me like a nightmare. Think of it: nowhere at any time has the Negro shown himself capable of creating and operating a free, viable society. What have 150 years of independence accomplished in Haiti? Where in the outside world is there a single Negro achievement, a single Negro personality, that the American Negro could be proud to identify himself with? Surely it should be the other way around: the twenty million Negroes in America should achieve something that would serve as a source of pride to Negroes everywhere.
or this terser observation made three days later:
Through the bus window on the way home I saw waiting on the sidewalk a Negro family—father, mother, and a daughter about ten years old. The girl had new shoes and a new coat, and she held father’s and mother’s hands. They presented a self-respecting ensemble totally free of the flash of juvenile delinquency one detects in most Negroes.
ten years later, I do not know—except perhaps to demonstrate the operation of that new sense of history which his encounter with President Johnson had aroused in him.
Generally speaking, Asiatics fare no better than blacks at his hands, though he treats them more briefly. There is a passing reference in The Temper of Our Time to the “Vietnam emergency” as a factor which has delayed the impact of automation on employment in America; a mention of “a hell of a meeting with a pack of biting, hissing crummy intellectuals. I rubbed their noses in dirt”—these having been identified earlier as “journalists from Southeast Asia”; an anecdote told to Tomkins about putting down “a little Indonesian…a regular two-bit intellectual” who had come to San Francisco as a member of a foreign trade union delegation and wanted to meet Hoffer, by quoting a phrase from the Qu’ran to him in Arabic:
Well, you ought to have seen his face. He practically fell into my arms. I told him, sure, you’d better be wary of us, you’d better be suspicious of us, because when your people find out the truth about America, they’ll see that they can get along without intellectuals, just the way we’ve done over here. Oh, boy, I really wiped the floor with him. And he took it, because of that phrase.
What is wrong with Asia, in Hoffer’s view, is again its technical incompetence, which expresses a shiftlessness and slackness in imposing man’s will on his traditional adversary, nature:
There is a phase of the war with nature which is little noticed but has always impressed me. To me there is an aura of grandeur about the dull routine of maintenance: I see it as a defiance of the teeth of time. It is easier to build than to maintain….
It is strange that in Asia, where civilization had its birth, the separation from nature and the ability to hold it at bay should be much less pronounced than in the younger civilization of the Occident. In Asia, Africa, and Latin America the man-made world seems precariously stretched over the writhing body of nature…. Once the Occident withdrew its hand, the dragon of Asia would move in and sink its yellowed teeth of time into all that the Occident had built and wrought, and gnaw away till naught was left but a skeleton of ruins.
Juveniles, like Asiatics, seem precariously civilized to Hoffer: the two categories combined are explosive. The opening chapter of The Temper of Our Time is called “A Time of Juveniles.” and it begins:
There was a week several years ago during which the newspapers reported an epidemic of student riots spreading from Istanbul to Teheran, Bombay, Saigon, Seoul, Tokyo, and Mexico City. Most of the riots had an anti-American flavor. And I remember how, early one morning, while waiting for the bus that would take me to the waterfront, I saw the headline of still another riot, and heard myself snorting with disgust: “History made by juvenile delinquents!”
Later in the book he notes, broodingly, “The humanness of the adolescent is a precarious thing.” A few pages later he repeats this—but by then the solution is in sight:
His humanness is a precarious thing, easily sloughed off. Both the Bolsheviks and the Fascists made use of juveniles to do the dirty work of killing.
My feeling is that the humanization of billions of adolescents would be greatly facilitated by a concerted undertaking to master and domesticate the whole of the globe. One would like to see mankind spend the balance of the century in a total effort to clean up and groom the surface of the globe—wipe out jungles, turn deserts and swamps into arable land, terrace barren mountains, regulate rivers, eradicate all pests, control the weather, and make the whole land mass a fit habitation for man. The globe should be our and not nature’s home, and we no longer nature’s guests.
Though this suggestion would be as startling to Konrad Lorenz as to Ho Chi-Minh, it does suggest a possible motive for our otherwise incomprehensible Asian policy, and explains why it contrasts so sharply with the actions of the Bolsheviks and the Fascists who made use of juveniles to do the dirty work of killing. It even goes a little way toward resolving a question that troubled Mr. Hoffer, according to his daybook, on December 14, 1958. “Now and then I wonder where my obsession with the intellectuals is going to lead me,” he wrote. “If I could put together a small volume on the subject I would get it out of my system.” But writing The Temper of Our Time does not seem to have had this effect, and the question remains unresolved. However puzzled he might be, Hoffer would surely be unlikely to turn to psychological theory for an understanding of his course of psychic development. “What the hell could Freud teach me?” Tomkins records his asking, rhetorically. “Freud lived in a tight little community, Vienna, and within that was the Jewish community, even tighter, and within the Jewish community was the Freud family, tighter yet, and naturally there was a great deal of suppression and all that. In my case there was never any suppression. Nothing! The same with most people I work with.”
This seems a rather dogmatic statement from a man who taught himself to read both English and German as a brilliant and precocious boy of five; then went suddenly and inexplicably blind two years later shortly after his mother died, recovering his sight as mysteriously at the age of fifteen and remaining therefore linked to other human beings almost exclusively through the egregious practice of literature. Hoffer, offended by his harsh comments about America, gives Freud a prominent place in his gallery of obnoxious intellectuals from another world, and takes no account of the fact that Freud was also one of the great innovative medical technicians of all time. It is ironical even to imagine that they might have encountered each other as human beings. But in 1909 when Hoffer was seven and living in the Bronx, Freud at fifty-three was a visiting lecturer at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts—one of the very few physicians in the entire world at that time who would have known how to diagnose and treat a case of psychogenic blindness. Neither, of course, knew the other existed a four-hour train ride away, and nothing would have come of it if either had known. But there they were. As another young man who was farming and teaching English in New Hampshire at the time was later to observe, the path not taken makes all the difference.
In the Preface to Working and Thinking on the Waterfront, Hoffer defines intellectuals as “people who feel themselves members of the educated minority, with a God-given right to direct and shape events. An intellectual need not be well educated or particularly intelligent.” And one of his aphorisms warns that “One of the chief problems a modern society has to face is how to provide an outlet for the intellectual’s restless energies yet deny him power. How to make and keep him a paper tiger.” He is correct, it seems, in his estimate of both the seriousness of the problem and its difficulty. If a longshoreman’s work won’t do it, what else conceivably could?