Scott Nearing was one of the most influential thinkers of the homestead movement. His book Living the Good Life, written with his wife Helen in 1954, marked a critical development in the concept of a sustainable lifestyle. The Nearings’ promotion of living simply from the land was no post-WWII American anti-consumerism fad. Instead, it was the logical – and somewhat necessary – outcome of many choices made by Scott over a long, complicated, contentious, and productive life. John A. Saltmarsh’s biography, Scott Nearing: The Making of a Homesteader, is a fascinating look at this brilliant and difficult man.
Born in 1883 to a privileged Pennsylvania family, Nearing obtained a baccalaureate and doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in economics. He quickly distinguished himself as a strong scholar and an outstanding teacher whose work was always infused with a social conscience. Nearing’s economic philosophy connected with his Christian ideals. Nearing was greatly concerned about inequality and the corrupting power of unchallenged wealth. He also regularly made the city his classroom. It was a controversial mix, particularly at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, where Nearing held a faculty appointment. In 1915 Nearing’s contract was not renewed. It was one of the more famous cases of thwarted academic freedom, worrying academics across the nation.
Saltmarsh’s book untangles the event, demonstrating the expectations and power of the trustees. Saltmarsh also makes it clear that Nearing was no naïve victim. Nearing went out of his way to challenge the beliefs and agency of the Wharton trustees and his other colleagues. In a pattern that Nearing would replicate throughout his life, he asserted an extreme, righteous, and rigid position from which to assail his detractors. Thus cloaked in morality, Nearing viewed compromise or moderation as unacceptable failings. Nearing consistently advanced incisive observations and ideas in a doctrinaire manner.
Nearing vigorously objected to America’s preparedness for the Great War and militarism in general. He moved from active support of the Socialists to enthusiasm for the Communists in the 1920s. The Communists would not admit Nearing as a member for some time, and after his eventual acceptance, he was tossed out for failing to adhere to party dictates. Nearing traveled extensively, published constantly, and was unable and unwilling to return to the strictures of full-time academia. By the late 1930s, Nearing moved to rural Vermont. He and his wife farmed and tried to live simply from the immediate environment. Nearing was not completely off the grid, however. He objected to American involvement in World War II, remaining consistently anti-militaristic and deeply opposed to the use of the atomic bomb. By the mid-1950s, Nearing’s writing about his simple lifestyle found a new and much more receptive audience. Seeing him in a new light, Nearing’s new readers did not identify him as an early twentieth century political radical.
Although it may not have been Saltmarsh’s aim, his careful investigation of Nearing’s thinking highlights some of the challenges facing the far left in twentieth century America. The hopes of the socialists at the turn of the century gave way to soured relationships with the federal government and the American voting public. FDR’s New Deal may have offered a vindication to some but not to ideologically committed leftists. For these people, the growth of the power and influence of the federal government reshaped the national debate and left them few viable positions. Nearing saw this and opted out of “normal” American life.
Saltmarsh is a patient biographer. Sympathetic to Nearing’s idealism, Saltmarsh is also clear about Nearing’s failings as a human being. He was difficult to the point of hostility to friends and family, demanding that others follow his values. Nearing’s rigidity extended to his children. John, one of Nearing’s sons took a position at Life magazine, writing on Soviet issues. Disagreements between the two lead Nearing elder to end all communication between them.
Mulling over the ever-widening gap between Nearing’s hopes for a just society and his personal and professional decisions, I thought of the old legal adage that “bad cases make bad law.” In other words, it is difficult to make broad statements about law (or policy) from difficult and complicated cases. Nearing himself presents just such a “bad case.” The more that I learned of the man and considered his behavior, the more difficult I found it to evaluate his arguments objectively. Was Nearing’s rigidity and gravitation to extreme positions a function of the power of his ideas or a quarrelsome personality? Was his adoption of a simple life a political statement or how he dealt with an inability to get along with others? My shortcomings in assessing Nearing fairly, I wager, are not unique. He was a smart and difficult man.
There is much to consider in Nearing’s idealism and his critique of economic inequality. Had Nearing been able to rein in his extremism and avoid his propensity for self-directed martyrdom, his ideas might have found much more positive reception. That willingness to acknowledge others and their ideas, however, may, have been what Nearing did not want. Absolutism often correlates with isolation, and there are only a few steps between self-reliance and self-absorption.