Memories of Albert Jay Nock
and Francis Neilson

Will Lissner

[Reprinted from Fragments, April-June 1982]

Was Albert Jay Nock the scholar he claimed to be? Francis Neilson. who, together with Nock, edited the old Freeman, claimed that Nock was a poseur who used a book of Latin and Greek phrases and their translations to spike his copy with an air of classical erudition.

I should be able to cast some light on the issue of scholarship, for Nock was a friend of mine. and Francis Neilson was my collaborator and mentor for twenty years. Helen Swift Neilson, Nock's patroness for seven years, was a very dear friend; she was also my adviser when, with the help of Violetta G. Peterson, I was nursing The American Journal of Economics and Sociology in-to maturity. Ben Huebsch, who was the publisher of The Freeman, was a friend whom I saw every week for about ten years before his death. I was also acquainted with Suzanne La Follette, Nock's right-hand woman on the magazine.

To understand why Neilson wrote so rancorously about Nock, it is necessary to know Nock's history. After he was graduated from St. Stephen's College (now Bard College), Nock attended a theological seminary and became a priest of the Episcopal Church. He married and had two sons, both of whom became college teachers and distinguished scholars. Whether his wife and he separated, I do not know. Nock served in the clergy in Ohio under a bishop who was noted for his advocacy of the Single Tax, and there made the acquaintance of leading Georgists: Tom Johnson, Brand Whitlock, and Newton D. Baker. He also was an intimate friend of William Jennings Bryan, the famous presidential candidate, who played a leading role in the later Progressive Movement and became Secretary of State in the first Wilson administration.

Eventually, Nock left the ministry. I believe that he underwent a crisis of faith. He became a muckraking journalist and wrote, in an extremely polished style, for some of the leading magazines of the pre-war era.

Francis Neilson, as a leading British pacifist, fought against Greet Britain's entry into World War I. When war commenced, he quit his seat in the Parliament, took his family to the United States, and became an American citizen. In 1915, before he emigrated, he wrote How Diplomats Make War and gave the manuscript to Nock to take to Ben Huebsch, his New York publisher. Nock, according to Huebsch (and contrary to the inaccurate statements made by others, and by me, did not collaborate in the work. The book caused a sensation in America.

Neilson's wife did not like the United States. She returned to England, and they were divorced. Neilson married Helen Swift Morris, the talented daughter and heiress of Gustavus Swift. She first met Neilson when he was the leader of the "Young Turks," the radical wing of the English Liberal Party. She also knew Nock, and financially assisted The Nation when Nock was connected with it.

When war ended, Nock asked Helen Neilson to subsidize a new Georgist weekly that he planned to establish. She agreed enthusiastically. The two of them broached the subject to Francis Neilson. When he could not persuade them to drop the idea, he took over the planning. And thus was born The Freeman, published in the fashion of Addison's and Steele's Spectator and Tatler. The new magazine was almost entirely Neilson's conception. It aimed at the serious readers, and, eventually, it won the allegiance of seven thousand of them.

The historians of American literature claimed that the old Freeman was unique because it was "distinguished by good prose and the Single Tax." Good prose it certainly had, and it was Nock, with the help of his staff, who saw to that. Celebrated writers, such as Thomas Mann, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Thorstein Veblen, contributed excellently-written articles. However, neither Nock nor Neilson was a Single Taxer. This was also true of Henry George, whom the encyclopedists dubbed a Single Taxer. George fought against calling the Single Tax a panacea. The only panacea he knew, he said, was "freedom." As for Nock and Neilson, they considered themselves Georgists, and they both held the "panacea mongers" in silent contempt. What The Freeman presented was the Georgist ethical and radical-liberal viewpoint, not the Single Tax.

After a while, unfortunately, much friction developed between Nock and Neilson. One of the reasons for such friction was that Nock rewrote many of Neilson's articles in Nock's own distinctive style, causing the readers to assume that "Nock was the Freeman."

Neilson bitterly resented this assumption (the rumor of which soon reached him). Over and over again, as if he were reciting a litany, he would rattle off the names of the staff. Van Wyck Brooks, Geroid Tanquary Robinson, Walter Fuller, Suzanne La Follette, and so on. It was the lot of them, he maintained, not one or two, who made the magazine what it was. To the professional journalist, this was obviously true. The reading public, however, was under the illusion that Nock (practically alone) edited the magazine.

An additional source of friction was Nock's practice of rewriting Neilson's editorials, as well as his articles. Neilson had a natural, graceful style that enabled him to engage in intimate communication with the reader -- I know, for I copy-edited Neilson's manuscripts for twenty years. My New York Times rewrite colleagues and I would consider it unethical to put the stamp of our individual styles on other people's writings. Nock obviously did not share our views. If Neilson had not later established his own claim to stylistic honors (in the essays which, with the devoted collaboration of Phyllis Evans, he wrote until he was ninety-four), Nock's actions would have to be characterized as deplorable.

Did Neok do his rewriting to pass off somebody else's work as his own? Neilson thought so, but he never succeeded in persuading me. I believe that since Nock considered his style to be the acme of all styles, he thought all good writing in The Freeman should be presented in that style. He wanted the magazine to succeed.

Neilson, himself, ungrudgingly paid tribute to Nock as the man who kept the enterprise going for the four years of its existence (1920-1924). Suzanne La Follette claimed that Nock's prodding and encouragement brought out the best in everybody and assured the continuance of the excellent prose -- even if the prose did suffer from the sense of sameness.

The differences between Neilson and Neok were exacerbated when Neilson wrote a sequel to How Diplomats Make War. He called it The Myth of a Guilty Nation. He sent the manuscript to Nock, to be published serially in The Freeman. Nock proceeded to rewrite the book from start to finish in his own style, and then published it under the nom de plume of "Journeyman." As a result, the congratulations went to Nock instead of to Neilson, its true author.

Years later, Nock denied that he had had any intentions of robbing Neilson of credit for his book. He pointed out that How Diplomats Make War was also published under a nom de plume -"Statesman," I believe. But I am at a loss to understand why Nock allowed the notion to get abroad that he was the author.

Did the quarrel between Neilson and Nock bring about the demise of The Freeman? My own view is that the magazine died as a result of a combination of circumstances. Neilson, as the former stage director of the London Royal Opera, was anxious to take his wife on an artistic and musical tour of Europe; Nock was anxious to be off to his beloved Low Countries.

The high cost of publishing The Freeman may also have played a role in its termination. Helen Neilson told me that the magazine's deficit was two million dollars. She was prepared to continue supporting The Freeman, but when she lost a considerable part of her fortune (to save a friend from bankruptcy), she was unable to contribute as before. In any case, and for whatever reason, The Freeman ceased to exist.

With the aid of three ether patronesses, Nock was able to turn out a series of books much beloved by the cognoscenti, but he was little able to contribute much to what Neilson used to call "his larder." Nock also continued to write articles, one of which caused him much trouble. At the very time of Nazi anti-Semitism, Nock decided to write a two-part essay about the Jews. I remember that this essay gave me very great misgivings; and my forebodings were correct. The liberal weeklies hinted or stated that Nock was an anti-Semite. I did not believe it then, and I do not believe it now. The outcry against Nock, however, ended his article-writing career. From that point on, he concentrated only on books.

It is in his books that one may find the answer to the question originally asked: was Nock a scholar? In his excellent "rewrites," he depended mostly on ether scholars. His biographies of Henry George and Thomas Jefferson, for instance, were based on the works of Henry George, Jr., and Charles and Mary Beard, respectively. Nock's Our Enemy, the State was a fine rewrite of the shorter version of Franz Oppenheimer's The State. (However, Professor Oppenheimer, an intimate collaborator of mine, told me that Nock misunderstood Oppenheimer's views of the State and government.)

When Our Enemy, the State was published, Frank Chodorov (then the director of the Henry George School) and I had long discussions about the book. It raised many more questions than it answered, we thought. Chodorov proposed that we should try to get Nock to spell out his position in more detail, and to that end we should get him to give a series of lectures on the subject. Would I persuade Nock to accept? I told Chodorov that I would introduce him to Nock and depend on Chodorov to do the persuading.

We called upon Neck, oho succumbed to Chodorov's blandishments. I wrote the agenda for the lectures and tried to put in all the questions that had occurred to Chodorov and to me. But we were profoundly disappointed in Nock. Everything that he said was already in his book. At the end of the lectures, Chodorov and I looked at each other in disbelief. Subsequently, we also discovered that Nock completely failed to refer to the original German version of Oppenheimer's book, which contained much material that the English version did not have. Nock professed to read German, but he did not even bother to read the original Oppenheimer text.

When I narrated this incident to Neilson, his explanation for Nock's apparent lack of diligence was that Nock was lazy. I could not accept the explanation. My own guess was that Nock suffered from an illness that limited his activity. Nock's work on Rabelais, I said, even though the basic research was done by Catherine Rose Wilson, sufficiently demonstrated the depths and heights of Nock's own scholarship. Neilson listened to what I had to say, thought for a while, and then said frankly: "That Nock I did not know. I should only speak of Nock the journalist, the Nock I knew." And that was his policy thereafter.

What were Nock's contributions to social thought? They consisted of his thesis of the Remnant (which was basically a biblical version of Vilfrede Pareto's theory of the elites) and his promulgation of individualist anarchism (a political philosophy that owed much to the writings of Benjamin Tucker, Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, and Max Stirner). I never agreed with Nock's anarchistic views, but neither did I agree with Joseph Dana Miller's dictum that Nock was a defeatist.

I honor Nock for his co-editorship of The Freeman, for his journalistic writings, and for his (at times) scholarly books. I also honor him for having had the courage of his convictions. He had much to say: of value to the past, present, and future generations. He earned the right to be heard.