Albert Jay Nock
[Written as an introduction to a reprint of Nock's
"Henry George: Unorthodox American";
Will Lissner was, at the time, Editor-in-Chief of
The American Journal of Economics and Sociology]
Back in the dark days of 1932, when a despairing world and its
culture were being torn asunder by a major catastrophe, the worst
economic depression ever known, a man who is foremost among
America's few living exponents of belles-lettres wrote in his diary
under the date of Oct. 27; "Now that Roosevelt has dug up W.G.
Sumner and the Yale Press shows signs of life enough to republish
his writings, I should think someone might soon be rediscovering
Henry George. If so, he will find that George was one of the first
half-dozen minds of the nineteenth century, in all the world."
The man who set that down in his characteristically small, fine
hand, an essayist and historian who is one of the chief catalyzers
of the intellectual ferments of our time, was noting no passing
fancy. The idea returned to him and on Oct. 31 he recorded: "I
have been looking over the biography of Henry George, by his son
Harry, a painstaking sort of book. The best one can say for it is
that it is competent. There should be a better one, for George was
undeniably a great man."
Not only was Albert Jay Nock, the chronicler just quoted, thinking
of these things. In New York the editors of Scribner's Magazine had
the same notion and they commissioned Mr. Nock to do the job. The
essayist went abroad the following February and through the Spring
lived in his beloved low countries, breaking his stay at last for a
junket through France and Spain into Portugal. With his papers full
of commissions, some of which he would not do, some he might do and
a few he would do if time, and the business of living fully,
permitted, the assignment from Scribner's caused him no
preoccupation. But the personality of George kept popping up: at
Port Cros, watching a schooner put off ten tons of coal on March 31,
he mused: "All by hand labor, with the help of one donkey. I
wonder whether most of our labor-saving devices have really saved
anything worth saving. Henry George attacked this problem, in
'Progress and Poverty', and solved it, but his solution, being
valid, will not be accepted in a hurry."
Through his friends he was keeping in close touch with hectic
America. Henry L. Mencken wrote him, after the fiasco of the World
Economic Conference: "The republic proceeds towards hell at a
rapidly accelerating tempo." Nock was not profoundly stirred;
he spent the next day at the Lisbon museum. But the idea of
recreating Henry George was still rankling him. On June 9 he wrote
in the diary: "Overnight at Porto, on the way to Vidago, where
I hope to find a pleasant place to stop awhile and write an overdue
paper for Scribner's on Henry George."
Soon he was in Vidago where "one sees miserable dwellings,
occupied by people absolutely lost in poverty and filth, built of
magnificent huge granite blocks after the Roman fashion"; in
Vidago among a Portuguese people whom he found, nevertheless "without
a single exception, the kindest people I have ever seen." On
June 15 he noted. "Working steadily at quite high pressure on
my article for Scribner's on Henry George, so the days pass very
quickly. I hope it will call attention to him, though I suppose
nothing will do so effectively as long as Americans are what they
are, or until tremendous hardship puts an end to their being drugged
and doped by nostrums dealt out to them by demagogues and
scoundrels." In his idyllic refuge -- "what a superb
climate and what grand scenery" he remarked of Vidago --
America became remote to him; "one can hardly convince oneself,
while here, that it exists." But George, along of all his
environment, persisted and on June 26 Mr. Nock recorded: "I am
done with Henry George, and shall leave here tomorrow. What a great
man he was, and how well he managed to get himself misjudged and
forgotten! I suppose Scribner's people will pull a long face over
getting a really serious piece of work -- I often think of that
dreadful person, Bok, writing to Lyman Abbott for 'a short, snappy
life of Christ."' The aftermath was typical of the man; on July
29 he noted: "Scribner's people seem satisfied with my piece on
Henry George, and say it will come out in November, so I suppose all
the single-taxers in the country will curse me afresh."
That is how "Henry George, Unorthodox American" came to
be written, as anyone can see for himself in Mr. Nock's "A
Journal of These Days: June 1932-December 1933" (Morrow, 1934.)
But to understand how this tabloid biography came to be the unique
study it is, even when one compares it with the admirable similar
studies by Broadus Mitchell and Rexford C. Tugwell, one must recall
Mr. Nock's career. He took his bachelor's degree at St. Stephen's
College, where he steeped himself in the classical languages and
their literatures. With Francis Neilson he wrote "How Diplomats
Make War" (1915; 2d Ed., 1916). From 1920 to 1924, he edited
the old Freeman in company with Neilson, Suzanne LaFollette and
others equally notable, setting unexcelled standards in periodical
journalism. During that period he wrote "The Myth of a Guilty
Nation" under the pseudonym of Historicus (1422) and edited "The
Selected Works of Charles F. Browne (Artemus Ward)" (1924), in
the latter work establishing the native humorist as the social
satirist he was.
A scholar's life-time job found fruit in his "Jefferson"
(1926). He followed this with a collection, "On Doing the Right
Thing and Other Essays" (1928). Then, with Catherine Rose
Wilson, he wrote "Francis Rabelais, the Man and His Work"
(1924), first fruit of another life-time interest. With Miss Wilson,
he edited the Urquhart-Le Matteaux translation of the works of "Francis
Rabelais" (2 vols., 1931), concluding a monumental work of
scholarship with his book, "A Journey Into Rabelais's France"
(1934). Meanwhile he had served as visiting professor of American
history and government at Saint Stephen's and had published, under
the pseudonym of Journeyman, "The Book of Journeyman"
(1932) together with a noteworthy stricture on an institution close
to him, "The Theory of Education"(l932).
The contradiction between state and society, in which Ludwig
Gumplowicz and Franz Oppenheimer had interested him long before,
resulted in a work as significant in a social sense as "Rabelais"
and "Jefferson" had been in literary and historical
senses, "Our Enemy the State" (1935). He followed this
with "Free Speech and Plain Language" 1937). Throughout
all these dates a stream of essays on contemporary themes poured
from his pen, to find critical and keenly appreciative hearings
among the readers of The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, The
American Mercury and similar literary papers.
What we have then, in "Henry George, Unorthodox American,"
is a living portrait of one unusual citizen of the world by another.
The American Journal of Economics and Sociology