Critics of American Individualism

First edition of Herbert Hoover’s American Individualism

No author is without critics and Herbert Hoover’s American Individualism had many, some thoughtful and others simply dismissive.  As both critics and supporters alike point out, Hoover’s musings are not a systematic treatment of the topic.  Some find Hoover’s statements impressionistic while others see them as a portal into a larger truth.  Among the earliest critics were reviewers for more left of center journals.  Morris R. Cohen, writing in the New Republic recognized Hoover’s accomplishments as an engineer and humanitarian during and after World War I but did not believe that qualified Hoover as a thinker on social problems.  Cohen writes: “Haziness about the meaning of fundamental ideas such as individualism, carelessness in making assertions of fact, and what is worse, an ungenerous disinclination to consider whether our opponents might not be honest and possessed of some intelligence, are things that we have grown to expect of the ordinary Fourth of July Oration.  It is painfully surprising to find them in one who has shown a remarkable combination of perspicacity and human sympathy in the organization of vast systems of relief, as well as the qualities of a careful scholar in his book on Agricola.”  Stanton A. Coblentz writing in The New York Herald believed Hoover “sincere” but “the victim of a self-delusion that vitiates the value of his arguments.”  Coblentz bases this on his understanding of Hoover: “Looking at our institutions with a comprehensive social vision that takes no thought of individuals, he states that is not by the minority of the unfortunate but by the majority of the fortunate that the existing order of things is to be judged; that, for example, it is no indictment of the present system if there are a million ‘undernourished, overworked, uneducated children,’ so long as there are also thirty-four millions more comfortably situated.”

Historians have also been divided on the importance of American Individualism in understanding Hoover.  Richard H. Hofstadter, writing in The American Political Tradition, sees Hoover’s emphasis on the “open field” and “fair chance” in the race for riches an outdated illusion that was destroyed by the Great Depression.    Hofstadter argues: “Hoover, had he been challenged with the overpowering implausibility of his notion that economic life is a race that is won by the ablest runner, would have had a ready answer from his own biography: had he not started in life as a poor orphan and worked in the mines for a pittance, and had he not become first a millionaire and then President of the United States?  There are times when nothing is more misleading than personal experience, and the man whose experience has embraced only success is likely to be a forlorn and alien figure when his whole world begins to fail.”  Whereas Hofstadter accuses Hoover of being outdated in his thinking, William E. Leuchtenburg is simply dismissive of Hoover’s book as having any value.  Claiming “most of American Individualism offered nothing that could not be heard at a weekly Kiwanis luncheon,” Leuchtenburg posits that the book ignored the harsh reality many individuals faced in their daily lives.  “It is hard to fathom,” Leuchtenburg writes, “why this jejune screed, little more than a pamphlet, has been taken seriously as a meaningful contribution to social theory.  A man who had already convinced himself that ‘we now have equality of opportunity,’ Hoover never gave more than a glance at the actual life choices faced by a Mississippi sharecropper or an Ohio seamstress.  He churned out synthetic sentiments (‘non-essentials are the real fertilizers of the soil from which spring the finer flowers of life’) and cloddish locutions such as ‘production of the total product.’”  As such Hofstadter and Leuchtenburg view Hoover’s writing through the lens of the Great Depression and not the immediate aftermath of World War I. 

One wonders how Hoover’s critics explain the experience of individuals who fled Soviet Russian, North Korea, China or other worker havens?  The debate over the role of the individual in modern society remains ongoing which is why Hoover’s book will always have an audience.

One thought on “Critics of American Individualism

  1. Listening to an audiobook of a biography on Herbert Hoover, and just read “American Individualism.” I thought it was very interesting!

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