Eric Hoffer at 75 Is Still 'Just Shooting My Mouth Off'
He is 75 years old and lives in a sparsely furnished one-room apartment 17 stories above San Francisco Bay. He does not have a phone, a television set or a radio, and spends hours walking the streets or reading at the library. But Eric Hoffer, the self-educated longshoreman-philosopher, is hardly the typical fragile senior citizen. Born in the Bronx to parents who had emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine, Hoffer went blind after a fall at the age of 7. Miraculously, his sight returned when he was 15. “I went through life like a tourist,” he explains—prospecting for gold and working as a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks. His biting social commentary in eight books and a nationally syndicated column (which he wrote for three years) attracted the attention of both Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, who solicited his views. Seven years ago, however, Hoffer dropped his column and limited his public appearances pretty much to lectures. Now he is increasing his visibility. On January 17 PBS will broadcast a 90-minute documentary titled Eric Hoffer: The Crowded Life. Recently Hoffer acquainted Nancy Faber of PEOPLE with some of his prejudices and predilections.
Did you retire seven years ago to do more writing?
I have always been retired. I am a solitary person, never in the stream of things. And I am not a writer. I never let them cast me in that role. I just shoot my mouth off. I am not good at doing my duty. That is why I never married.
Have you seen the new PBS documentary about you?
No, and I never will. I really don’t know what I look like. I shave best with my eyes closed. I only saw myself once on TV. They shot me giving a 45-minute lecture. There were no trimmings—just me reading. I was fascinated. But I wasn’t seeing myself. It was someone else doing it. A very good performance.
What are you doing now?
I have just finished writing a book called Before the Sabbath, from a diary that I kept for six months in 1974 and 75. It’s thick—200 pages, all in longhand, more than I have ever written before. I had to prove that I had something to write every day. Something fresh. Something original. Something brilliant. I can tell you it was hard.
Because I love to rewrite. Everything is rewritten 20 times. Baudelaire said he didn’t believe inspiration came with hard work. But I was never spontaneous, never brilliant. Nothing came easily. My work smells of sweat.
Did you ever visit the White House?
Yes, Johnson invited me. I liked Johnson. He had tremendous intelligence face to face. His misfortune was he couldn’t make a speech. It always sounded like elocution. You know, history rates highest our activist Presidents, but I believe they do the most harm to this country.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was our No. 1 disaster. Before he took office, Americans in trouble got themselves out of the hole. Now they blame the system and everybody else. FDR started this welfare mess. This tremendous burden. President Eisenhower, on the other hand, was occupied with keeping things from happening. Eisenhower sat on his ass and we were a thousand times better off.
Were you friends with President Nixon?
No, never Nixon. His tragedy was that here was a man of unsurpassed courage and intelligence—but no vision. He missed his greatest opportunity. He could have symbolized a new era. The Vietnam war was over, the time was right. His first task should have been to declare an end to the fossil fuel age, to announce that America was mobilizing its scientific knowledge for an all-out push to produce new cheap fuel. He could have told the Arabs to go to hell and drink their oil. Richard Nixon had guts, but I think the rich people got to him.
How do you view Jimmy Carter?
Carter gets himself elected and right away I hear him say he wants to be like FDR. And I think, oh hell. When reformers operate on the body politic, they don’t know the side effects to watch out for. Usually reformers produce just the opposite results. Being good can be risky.
What is this country’s major problem right now?
Inflation. President Ford saw that, but not enough other people realize it. Inflation can destroy a society. It produced Hitler, for example. Unions should be interested in keeping prices low as well as raising wages. If I were younger I would be alarmed that I might not have enough to live on. But I’m pushing 80 and there’s enough to last me. Still, I see it all around: old people poking in garbage cans to get enough to eat.
You were an outspoken critic of the youth protests of the 1960s. Why?
I was at Berkeley then. President Clark Kerr had made me a professor. I wasn’t really a teacher; it was just conversation. I was on campus in 1964 when the Free Speech Movement began. That was the start of it all. You cannot imagine how sickening it was to see a tremendous institution like the University of California laid low by a bunch of punks. A picture flashed before my eyes: that swineherd Pizarro who set out to destroy the Inca empire in 1532. And here it was being repeated by swinish punks. I was very alarmed. When you love someone or something you think it is weak and brittle. Only the things you hate do you believe are strong.
Did this situation result from a lack of discipline and authority?
The average intellectual contrasts authority and freedom. I say that freedom is impossible without authority. The absence of authority is anarchy—and anarchy is a thousand-headed tyrant.
How about the drug culture?
The backwash is evident even today—young people who were so bright you knew they would win Nobel prizes are still just hippies. What a tremendous waste of talent and ability.
What are kids on campus interested in today?
Getting back to sororities and fraternities. I think this is a good thing. These kids knew radicalism from high school. When they graduated they wanted a change. Radicalism has disappeared. The recession had something to do with that too.
What about world politics today?
One of my worries has been that there are no great leaders on this planet. Britain and Italy are crying out for them. Then suddenly here are two potential great leaders—Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. What is it about Israel—that little sliver of land—that produces so many remarkable people? Perhaps because their citizens live on the edge all the time. It must bring out the power.
Are there any other leaders with a potential for greatness?
With the exception of Begin and Sadat, I don’t see any. There used to be men like Churchill or de Gaulle waiting in the wings, but no more.
You are a city person. What do you see around you?
I am not afraid to walk around this city. I ask to be mugged. They can smell my courage. But there is so much violence now. My cure for it is to make the authorities act. You have to punish those who-do evil. Otherwise they will not learn. I am not very good at taking abuse. By nature I am a savage. I believe in retaliation.
What is America’s best quality?
Its lack of malice. Yet cowardice breeds malice, and I see signs of cowardice. Courage is the quality I most admire. I pray that the American people get angry, because anger is a prelude to courage. The majority has been bussed, bamboozled, brainwashed and bullied—and they don’t strike back!
Do you think this country is heading in the right direction?
Well, yes. But we have to cherish imperfections. Righting wrongs does not increase social concord, you know. When our dreams come true, they turn into a nightmare. It’s a tragic situation, really. Imagine a system being destroyed by its successes! My favorite theme—one I keep returning to—is that you don’t really love humanity if you expect too much from it.