Eric Hoffer was the world-famous California longshoreman who wrote “The True Believer” and a dozen other fascinating, provocative books without spending a day in school. The success of “The True Believer” in 1951 led Look magazine in 1956 to identify him as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s favorite author (previously believed to be Zane Grey); and this accolade led Eric Sevareid to feature Hoffer in two CBS interviews broadcast nationally. This publicity led President Lyndon Johnson to spend an hour huddled with Hoffer in the White House Rose Garden. The man who wrote his books during work breaks on the waterfront became a celebrated author – and one of the few Americans to be called a philosopher.
“The True Believer” has become an American classic. Written in an analytical, dispassionate style, one very different from the bombastic emotional personality of its author, it identified and explained the motivations of the various fanatics who precipitated the mass movements of modern times. While it was based on Hoffer’s study of communism and fascism, the two mass movements of his early years, it was rereleased just after Sept. 11, 2001, because it also sheds light on the contemporary mass movement that led fanatic “true believers” to fly planes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
Several writers have published books on Hoffer, this reviewer among them, but the earlier volumes were either introductions to the themes of Hoffer’s books or personality sketches based on conversations with him. Tom Bethell has now provided a thorough and definitive study of Hoffer the man, the philosophy represented in his books and articles, and his place in modern thought. He critically reviews Hoffer’s life, organizes and explains the major philosophical claims in his books, and carefully addresses all the questions about Hoffer that can likely be answered.
Bethell has been an editor at Harper’s magazine and the Washington Monthly and is currently a senior editor of The American Spectator. He has also been a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, where Hoffer’s papers are collected. He met and interviewed Hoffer 30 years ago and talked with all the people still living who knew Hoffer intimately. Among those were Hoffer’s lover, Lili Fabilli Osborne (who died in 2010), her son (and Hoffer’s) Eric Osborne, and Hoffer’s most devoted disciple and associate, Stacy Cole. This book is Bethell’s reward for his years of labor and a delight for any reader who finds Hoffer fascinating and informative.
Bethell’s best achievement here is his quest to discover the truth about Hoffer’s early and private life. Before he emerged as a public literary figure at around the age of 50, little is known with certainty about him. Bethell questions Hoffer’s assertion that he was born in New York in 1902 and provides a strong argument that he was born in Germany in 1898 and was likely an illegal immigrant who never became an American citizen. He is also the first biographer to state with certainty that Hoffer and Lili were lovers and that Hoffer was the father of her youngest son, conceived while she was still married to her husband, Selden Osborne, the boy Hoffer always called his “godson” or his “grandson.”
Eric Hoffer was a set of contradictions: a scholar without formal education, an uncommonly brilliant common man, a deeply private, secretive person who became an international celebrity, a bigot who never stopped searching for enlightenment, and an ardent defender and advocate for a country that was probably not his own. Bethell’s book resurrects Hoffer and offers him to us who are long-time admirers and anyone just discovering him in vivid colors.
— Reviewed by James T. Baker, author of “Eric Hoffer,” a volume in the Twayne American Authors Series, 1982.