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Stanford Report, January 26, 2000

Hoover acquires Eric Hoffer papers

The papers of longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer have been acquired by the Hoover Institution Archives and now will be available for research in the archives' reading room.

Hoffer attained national prominence in 1951 with his first book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Historian Arthur Schlesinger praised the book as "a brilliant and original inquiry." It has since become one of the classics of social philosophy that is both revered and read by a wide audience. The collection at Hoover includes the very first outline of The True Believer, handwritten in pencil, as well as the full text written in ink with Hoffer's legible script.

The papers amount to 75 linear feet and contain extensive draft writings by Hoffer, many of them unpublished, and often jotted in notebooks during his work breaks on San Francisco's waterfront, said Hoover archivist Elena Danielson. There is a large volume of correspondence and working papers of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, to which Hoffer was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The papers, along with sound recordings, photographs and memorabilia, constitute a significant source in American intellectual history.

The collection also contains much biographical material about Hoffer's life. He was born in New York in 1902, a precocious child who learned to read very early in both English and German.

Two incidents blocked his formal education. First, his mother died, and then, at the age of 7, Hoffer lost his eyesight in an accident. When his vision returned unexpectedly at age 15, Hoffer began to compensate for years of blindness with voracious reading. Lacking an academic diploma, he made a living at odd jobs and manual labor. His extensive reading eventually led him to begin writing during the 1930s, and some of his early drafts can be found in the collection.

In 1943, Hoffer settled in San Francisco and took a steady job as a longshoreman. After completing his work day, he did research at the San Francisco Public Library. Hoffer combined his conclusions from these studies and his observations from the waterfront into succinctly worded insights.

"Open his manuscripts to almost any page, and randomly chosen sentences stand out on their own as aphorisms," Danielson said. The collection, she added, will appeal to young students as well as senior scholars because his writings are easy to relate to.

Following the success of The True Believer, Hoffer published a series of thoughtful and original books, several of which also have entered the canon, such as The Passionate State of Mind (1955) and The Ordeal of Change (1963).

As his fame spread, he responded generously to students and scholars who contacted him. He held office hours at the University of California-Berkeley and talked to Stanford students and faculty in seminars, Danielson said. "Even in an academic role, he proudly continued to wear his working class clothes and talk naturally in the manner of a longshoreman. While his writing style is coolly reasoned and precise, his speaking was animated and charismatic."

A Public Broadcasting Service series captured this aspect of his personality, and President Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1982. The following year saw the publication of his last book, Truth Imagined. He died in 1983 at the age of 80.

Hoffer's themes have proved to be enduring ones: the nature of mass movements, social violence, the social role of intellectuals and the dynamics of social change. "Many of his comments have proven to be prescient. He noted that the greatest threat to the Soviet state would come at some future time with the first attempt to have 'the iron totalitarian rule relaxed,'" Danielson said.

Among his most widely quoted aphorisms is a reflection on the nature of ideology: "We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand" (from The True Believer).

Hoffer's literary executor, Lillian Fabilli Osborne, persuaded him to preserve his papers and rough drafts. She carefully gathered the materials after his death and eventually placed them in the Hoover Institution Archives for safekeeping. Partial support for Hoover's permanent acquisition of the papers was provided recently by a gift from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, Danielson said, that allowed the archives to open the collection to researchers.

Additional information about the content of the Hoffer papers and access to them can be obtained by contacting Danielson at 723-3563 or SR