Top positive review
A fascinating portrait of Eric Hoffer, the man.
Reviewed in the United States on September 17, 2015
This book is magnificent.
Thomas Bethell has done a yeoman's work going through all the many volumes of Hoffer's writings and interviews and interviewing people in order to put together a portrait of the man. So many intellectuals make a habit of nourishing their egos with the actual attention to development of ideas only a distant second. (Mao was 99% a cult of personality and almost NO intellectual depth.) Hoffer is the opposite. We know much of his intellectual prowess, but almost nothing of the man himself.
I myself have been a Hoffer fan for many years, and as my awareness of his huge body of work grows so does my appreciation of the fact that he was a man who worked with real people and developed ideas from those interactions.
This well written book accomplished several ends:
1. It demonstrated the development of a towering intellect over time.
a. The subject's thoughts developed over a long period of time. There are people whose thoughts about some topic congeal (even though they may be wrong) and they spend the next several decades repeating the same hat over and over again-- as if they themselves need to believe it. (Think Paul Krugman on Keynesian Economics.) There are examples in this book of his taking an idea and then discarding it several years later. There are ideas of his gradual shift to the right over time.
b. There were lots of things that he *just didn't know*. The author gives his unawareness of lasting advances in Economics (made by the greats Milton Friedman and FA Hayek) as examples of limits of his ability to understand events.
c. There were many ideas that he worked on for a very long time, and was unable to bring to fruition. (The book on intellectuals, for example. Something that might be a close substitute would be the Thomas Sowell book, Intellectuals and Society: Revised and Expanded Edition)
2. It showed the human aspects of the man.
a. He was very lusty (liked the hookers), though never married.
b. He fathered a child out of wedlock (yes, there were babydaddies even way back then!).
c. No one knows where he came from, and he never did tell it right. (Thomas Bethell painstakingly takes apart his interviews and notes the inconsistencies in them, as well as the type of German that he spoke belying his stories.)
d. There were many people in an out of his life. For all of his insight into the Human Condition, he was not able to maintain a relationship with his only son.
e. There is also the fact that Hoffer was not aware of the true nature and goings on behind the Iron Curtain. (No one knew, really. And he was not unique in this regard.)
f. Almost all of what he had to say was said in his first book, and his other books did not do well (nor are they in print to this day).
g. He was an illegal immigrant.
3. It gave us an idea of how big Hoffer was in his time. Owing to his being dead so long before the age of the internet (where every video or interview that someone gives can be found long after they would like it to be forgotten), I didn't understand how big of a public intellectual he was. He achieved fame and fortune (having $150,000 saved in the 1960s), but still lived a modest and unpretentious life. Contrast this to how many intellectuals died penniless and bitter.
4. There are a lot of things that I did come away from the book wondering:
a. How were people able to find so much of what he wrote to other people as letters, years after the fact? Did he make copies of his letters? (This is something that I have noticed that people who write a lot do. Thomas Sowell wrote a whole book about letters that he had written to people over many decades-- and that lets me know that he must have kept the letters.)
b. What was the problem with getting his book on intellectuals out? The few snippets that Bethell was able to put in the book were fascinating. There was so much there. Given that Hoffer was a person who valued parsimony of words, what would have been the problem with putting out a shorter book that said all that he had to say? Goodness knows that he waited long enough to say it.
Verdict: This book is worth the time and worth the money.