Just learned the terrific news last night that A Journey Through Literary America has won the Eric Hoffer Award in the category of Art Book.
From the award notice for the art category: Titles in this category capture the experience, execution, or demonstration of the arts, including art, fine art, graphic art, architecture, design, photography, and coffee table books.
A Journey Through Literary America, Thomas R. Hummel, photographs by Tamra L. Dempsey, Val De Grâce Books – This unique literary tour spans the country to highlight the life and work of America’s best-known writers. From Washington Iriving (1783-1859) to Richard Ford (1944- ), both the essays and photos delve into the writer’s biographies and major literary achievements. It is a unique point of view and perhaps overdue in literary examinations. Expected elements such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables and Langston Hughes’ Harlem don the pages. Steinbeck’s Salinas wasn’t missed, but little treats like Sherwood Anderson’s houses, Philip Roth’s Weequahic, and Faulkner’s map of Yoknapatawpha County help bind the collection.”
Who was Eric Hoffer? Known by many as “the Longshoreman Philosopher,” Hoffer was born at the turn of the Twentieth Century, in New York City. No official record of his initial appearance on this earth exists, nor does he seem to have attended any school. According to Hoffer (our only source for the early biographical details), his mother fell down the stairs while carrying him when he was around the age of five. Two years later, she died. Hoffer went blind, and remained so for the next eight years. And then, as inexplicably as it had vanished, his sight came back. As Hoffer wrote: “I had no schooling. I was practically blind up to the age of fifteen. When my eyesight came back, I was seized with an enormous hunger for the printed word. I read indiscriminately everything within reach—English and German.”
Around 1920, taking $300 given to him by his father’s cabinetmaker’s guild, Hoffer headed west. “Logic told me that California was the poor man’s country,” he wrote. He did the work of the poor in Los Angeles, and then up and down the San Joaquin Valley as a fruit and vegetable picker. In 1938, he submitted a 30-page long letter to a publication called Common Ground. It was turned down. But Margaret Anderson, assistant to the editor, who had sent him the rejection note, also took the liberty of forwarding Hoffer’s letter to Harper & Brothers (book publisher and publisher of Harper’s–what we know today in the world of publisher mashups as Harper Collins). Sincerely or not, Harper & Brothers suggested Hoffer write his autobiography. Hoffer refused.
1943 found him in San Francisco, where he joined the union and worked as a longshoreman for twenty-five years. Hoffer kept writing, while at the docks and after work, and eventually sent the manuscript for his first book, The True Believer, to Ms. Anderson, who typed it up and sent it again to Harper & Brothers. Published in 1951, it was dedicated to Margaret Anderson. The thesis of the book, as an excellent biography of Hoffer on the Hoover Institution website (which I credit for many of the facts in this piece) has suggested, can be summarized by one of Hoffer’s own aphorisms: “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”
Hoffer was a late bloomer. He was at least a half century old by the time The True Believer was published. He once related that all of his relatives had died before forty. So, to have passed that mark and still be alive gave him a great sense of freedom. “I went through life like a tourist,” he said.
San Francisco is where he remained for the rest of his life, in a series of small, sparsely furnished apartments. He wrote ten more books, doing a lot of his composing while on long walks through Golden Gate Park. “The words, the ideas, come to me in the park,” he stated in a 1967 interview. “I shape them in my head there, and I write them in my notebook. Blind people write full sentences in their head. Sentences they can see. I still do.”
He entered onto the national scene in 1965, when Eric Sevareid conducted a series of interviews with him on CBS. This American original, who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere nearly a century earlier, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan in 1983.
It feels good to be honored by an award given in honor of Eric Hoffer: original thinker, working man, one who did not ascend through the normal literary channels. Thanks to the Eric Hoffer Project for recognizing the work.