Writers for Conservatives, 3: Scott Nearing on “Living the Good Life.”
Instead of describing a first rate writer who has enhanced culture, I am going to devote this third essay in the series to a man who wrote over 50 books and innumerable articles but was a mediocre writer; a man to whose home thousands of admirers traveled to express their admiration — but he was a thoroughly bad person; a man whose death, in his 101st year, was solemnly recorded on the front page of The New York Times, yet he was an ardent hard-line Communist who worked all his life against his country. It sounds like a strange subject, but I hope it will shed light on matters that are presently very dark in conservative minds.
Scott Nearing (1883-1983) achieved some éclat on the left when he was fired from a university teaching job during World War I for advocating pacifism, but despite his earnest efforts during the rest of his life that was as much recognition as he would ever wring from the comrades. Monthly Review, the ostensibly socialist (but actually Communist fellow traveling) magazine, acquired his newsletter, World Events, and as part of the deal Nearing had a column with the same name in MR. At one point when the editors solicited readers’ views, they learned that “World Events” was the magazine’s most unpopular feature. Why was such a stalwart comrade so disliked? One major factor was his rigid, outspoken Stalinism. He was a Stalinist almost before Stalin was, in 1925, and after his hero died he transferred his allegiance to Chairman Mao, and when the Great Helmsman was gathered to his fathers, Nearing’s last messiah was Enver Hoxha, the Albanian tyrant. He believed and regurgitated every Communist lie and line. This could only be discomfiting to lefties, who prefer the softly-softly approach on the principle that more flies are caught with honey than vinegar. When he was challenged, in a public debate, on the subject of the Soviet slave labor camps, he coolly defended them on the ground that the inmates were thereby saved from the evils of drink, gambling, whoring, and all the other manifold sins lurking in capitalist societies. You can imagine how lefties liked hearing that. Almost as important, he was unbearably self-righteous. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, he and his second wife Helen were absolutely repellent. If you have any sensitivity to language, it is impossible to read anything by them without sensing the presence of mean, smug, sanctimonious, humorless bastards. I shall insert quotations from interviews with the Nearings or from their book, Living the Good Life, to give the reader the flavor of his precious pair.
“He cited Elbert Hubbard’s . . . objective: ‘Do the best you can in the place you are and be kind.’ And Helen Nearing said, ‘I think Scott’s done that in his life, plus.” —Hartford Courant, June 7, 1981
But finally, in the ’60s, the Nearings found their audience, and within a decade Scott was a venerated Wise Man in the mainstream press. This astonishing development came about in this wise: in the 1930s the Nearings moved to Vermont to live the “Simple Life,” but here we must pause to dispel the fog of myth surrounding those words. While it is possible to live a simple life in the country — I’ve been doing it for more than 40 years — very few people have ever done it from choice because you have to enjoy hard labor, few conveniences, and a low income. The capitalized Simple Life, however, is a different breed of cat entirely. Its essence is phoniness. Everything about it is a pose. The main pretense is that one’s income is solely derived from one’s labor, usually the sale of farm products, but in fact there’s always a trust fund or something similar in the background. There follows the pose that one is not materialistic, that one’s life is more elevated, more spiritual, closer to Nature than the lives of all the rest of us Yahoos grubbing greedily in Consumerland. Simple Lifers are always very vain, and the point of their poses is that it empowers them to flaunt their supposed superiority.
“Instead of the hectic mad rush of busyness we intended a quiet pace, with time to wonder, ponder, and observe. We hoped to replace worry, fear and hate with serenity, purpose and at-one-ness.” — Living the Good Life
“Hence, we fenced, irrigated, terraced, planned, constructed, marking ourselves as odd, queer, over-ambitious and perhaps even a trifle un-neighborly by setting up standards of performance which were far removed from those accepted and followed by the neighborhood.” —Living the Good Life
It was perfect for the Nearings. They collected around themselves a few followers, pretended that their maple sugar business was their “cash crop,” and Scott continued to produce his simple-minded Commie books and articles. In the mid 1950s they wrote together a book about their Simple Life, Living the Good Life, but it had only a modest sale among the nut cutlet and hand-woven place mat crowd until the mid ’60s when the hippy homesteader phenomenon erupted, and then it became the Sacred Book for the movement. There were very good reasons for this. For one thing, the book contains no useful information about how to life simply and self-reliantly in the countryside. Other authors often make the mistake of thinking such instruction is what its readers want, but in fact, the better the information, the less popular the book. Nothing destroys the romance of the Simple Life like realism about practical matters. It is much more profitable to hymn the praises of Simple Living in such a way that the readers feel they are a select band of initiates superior to decadent conventional society.
“. . . where could outcasts from a dying society live frugally and decently, and at the same time have sufficient leisure and energy to assist in the speedy liquidation of the disintegrating society and to help replace it with a more workable social system?” —Living the Good Life
“. . . it was a way of preserving self-respect and of demonstrating to the few who were willing to observe, listen, and participate, that life in a dying acquisitive society can be individually and socially purposeful, creative, constructive and deeply rewarding.” —Living the Good Life
Nearing was a master of sly intimidation:
“It would have been quite possible to live in the Vermont hills as one did in the suburbs of New York or Boston, by going frequently to market in nearby towns, buying to meet all one’s needs in the shops, using fruits and vegetables loaded with poisonous sprays and dusts and far removed from their production source, plus the processed and canned output of the food industry. Such a procedure was followed by several families in the valley, as long as they could afford it. Meanwhile they paid the usual price in lowered vitality and ill health.” —Living the Good Life
The seeming target here are his neighbors, but since the reader has committed the same sins (as who hasn’t?) he is implicated, but precisely because it is by indirection, the reader can escape censure, assuage his guilt by lining up with Nearing, joining him in condemnation of his neighbors.
He worked his greatest appeal by self-serving attitudinizing:
“The foods we chose to live on were those that had the simplest, closest, and most natural relationship to the soil.”
“Raised bread we never baked and seldom bought. We got the same or better nourishment (and far cheaper) from the whole seed grain unprocessed.”
“We often had a one-day exclusive apple diet to revivify and cleanse the system.”
“Most of them were in for a shock. No coffee, no cereal, no bacon, no eggs, no toast, no pancakes, or maple syrup. Just apples, and sunflower seeds, and a black molasses drink. Such a fare sent many a traveler on his way soon enough.” — Living the Good Life
This works by endowing what one would think of as neutral acts with a strongly moralistic tone, so the believer can think he’s superior because he doesn’t eat “raised bread,” or because he’s a vegetarian, or just because he lives in the country, and so on and on.
Finally, there was an identity of temperament between Nearing and the famously indulged baby boomers who became ’60s People and at last Yuppies, a tendency to sanctimony and self-righteousness; no one ever accused them of humility or modesty. Naturally they were drawn to Nearing — they recognized a blood brother.
He and his wife were written about, photographed, and interviewed hundreds of times in all kinds of publications, not just countercultural country magazines but also the conventional middlebrow press (The New York Times, People), and every piece was gushingly reverential. Ads appeared in hippy homesteader rags “Leaving for Nearings on 25th. Have room for 2.” There was a time when money could be made by arranging tours and chartering busses.
For his old tiny audience he kept up the Stalinist ranting, but for the new multitudes he obscured his views, sensing that reporters would happily cooperate with his subterfuge in that blend of ignorance, sentimentality, and liberal irresolution characteristic of journalists when the subject of Communism is broached. All the ghastly realities of Communism were blinked away so as not to dispel the warm glow emanating from the presence of such a venerable Wise Man, a living legend embodying rustic myths at their rosiest as well as uncompromising, unconventional radicalism, a double whammy, each one composed of layer upon layer of sentimental, vicious lies. History and myth, class and character met in the figure of one extraordinary crackpot.
“Nearing said that as one goes from one republic to another inside the USSR, one finds ‘quite different points of view, except that in Russia generally people are collectivist and outside of Russia generally people are individualists.’”
“Scott Nearing has been to Russia 9 times since the revolution of 1917, and the changes there, he says, ‘are fantastic.’ Changes in dress, conduct, transportation. ‘You mention it . . . they’re still making changes.’ —Hartford Courant
I would not be surprised to learn that most if not all of the foregoing is news, and outlandish news at that, to readers who may be thinking it’s past and done, quite irrelevant to today’s concerns. I suspect that the shenanigans of the ’60s were so alien and absurd that conservatives dismissed them without much analysis. And some ignorance is due to lack of strong cultural awareness. But the ’60s, even as they are expiring, still animate yuppies, as in their vanity causes like Greenism (the believer is morally superior to the rest of us Nature destroyers) which conservatives have yet to understand. The National Review recently praised (with a few caveats) a book celebrating “countercultural conservatives” who eat “organic” food, embrace Greenism and home schooling, are wary of capitalism, and are repelled by consumerism. Sound familiar? Not to the reviewer, who obviously knows nothing of the cultural history I’ve been recounting. His strictures are no more than a feeble defense of mainstream conservatism. For instance, when the author claims that capitalism destroys the environment, all the reviewer can say is that “the environmental record of heavily regulated economies isn’t better” Ye Gods! Doesn’t he know anything about the devastation in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe? What’s really wrong with the book is that every one of its claims is false and pernicious because the author’s reasoning, his way of judging truth, has been corrupted at the root by the central motive of yuppieism, self-regard. Like the Nearings, like their earlier avatars the ’60s People, everything yuppies do or say is calculated to inflate their self-esteem, to puff up their egos. When a yuppie scorns materialism what he sees in his mind is images of fat slobby proles prowling Walmart aisles contrasted with a vision of himself, trim in his jogging outfit, selecting tasteful items in a classy Vermont boutique. So it goes with all the author’s causes. “Organic” foods, as study after study has shown, are no different from food produced without that imprimatur; if their consumption didn’t make yuppies feel superior (as Nearing did with his whole grain bread), their sales would be negligible. Home schooling, a good idea when it’s real, has become another casualty of yuppie smugness. Instead of actually teaching their children, they get together with other yuppies to conduct content-less classes a couple of times a week. The point is to inculcate yuppie values, and most of the teaching is “enriching” activities akin to what used to be called field trips. They learn nothing except to regard themselves as superior to kids who attend the local schools.
Another ominous sign is the author’s praise of Wendell Berry, a figure similar in significant ways to Scott Nearing. I should explain that most of the hippy homesteader magazines of the ’60s and ’70s, small country monthlies for the most part which were essentially harmless (I wrote for several), died when their readers left their yurts in the woods, but some survived to become today radically reactionary rags, filled with paeans of praise for “organic” farming and the rest of the causes, and hysterically vicious denunciations of modern agriculture, capitalism, and U.S. foreign policy. Berry, posed in the mainstream press as a folksy countryman (remember Nearing) concerned with the “excesses” of modern farming (a phony subject lately fashionable among ignoramuses), and he is one of the loudest voices in this reactionary chorus.
The point of this essay has been to show how analysis of prose and the ideas it embodies can shed light on current issues. The Nearings sleep in Abraham’s bosom and the so-called back to the land movement (phony from the start) they supposedly inspired is long gone, but the vanity, the desperate need to constantly assert one’s superiority to other Americans, a cardinal motive in the lives of the Nearings and their followers, so obvious once we look closely at the prose, continues to animate yuppies (Jonah Goldberg, in an article subsequent to the review mentioned above, correctly identifies the countercultural conservative cause as “narcissism”). Think, for instance, of the insufferable smugness of National Public Radio. That’s why it is impossible to argue reasonably with them about their causes. The impulses behind their attachments are irrational, and fewer motives are stronger than self-regard.
The essays in this series serve these purposes: to inform conservatives about writers and books that will give them pleasure; to broaden and deepen the culture of conservatives by acquainting them with diverse points of view largely undefiled by contemporary decadence; to demonstrate, by literary analysis, how to read more carefully. Here the first two purposes have been set aside, but I think I have demonstrated the value of literary analysis. You will not soon forget the obnoxiousness of the Nearings, nor, I hope, what it tells us about yuppies and their causes. *