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July 2000

Stylish Elegance: A Biography of Albert Jay Nock

Albert Jay Nock, author, aesthete, and social critic, was an advocate of liberty in a collectivist age.

American individualism had virtually died out by the time Mark Twain was buried in 1910. “Progressive” intellectuals promoted collectivism. “Progressive” jurists hammered constitutional restraints as an inconvenient obstacle to expanding government power, supposedly the cure for every social problem. “Progressive” Theodore Roosevelt glorified imperial conquest. “Progressive” President Woodrow Wilson maneuvered America into a European war, jailed dissidents and imposed the income tax which persists to this day. Great individualists like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were ridiculed, if they were remembered at all.

Yet author Albert Jay Nock dared declare that collectivism was evil. He denounced the use of force to impose one’s will on others. He believed America should stay out of foreign wars, because this inevitably subverts liberty. He insisted individuals have the unalienable right to pursue happiness as long as they don’t hurt anybody. Intellectual historian Murray N. Rothbard called Nock “an authentic American radical.” 

Even though Nock didn’t contribute to mass circulation magazines, and his books had a limited sale, he quietly affirmed that individualism was a living creed. Literary lion H.L. Mencken reportedly told Nock: “Nobody gives a damn what you write — it’s how you write that interests everybody.”  Paul Palmer, who edited the American Mercury after Mencken and published a number of Nock’s essays, remembered: “I suppose Nock was the greatest stylist among American writers. At least, no American ever wrote a purer prose.”

Nock won respect, too, because he was a highly civilized man. Explained literary critic Van Wyck Brooks: “he was a formidable scholar and an amateur of music who remembered all the great singers of his day and could trace them through this part or that from Naples to St. Petersburg, London, Brussels and Vienna. He had known all the great orchestras from Turin to Chicago…and he had visited half the universities of Europe from Bonn to Bordeaux, Montpelier, Liege and Ghent. He could pick up at random, with a casual air, almost any point and trace it from Plato through Scaliger to Montaigne or Erasmus, and I can cite chapter and verse for saying that whether in Latin or Greek he could quote any author in reply to any question. I believe he knew as well the Old Testament in Hebrew.”  American historian Merrill D. Peterson added: “He was a finished scholar, a brilliant editor, and a connoisseur of taste and intellect. 

Nock worked slowly, with exceeding care. As his friend Ruth Robinson observed, “He wrote by hand with a fountain pen. His manuscripts rarely needed corrections or changes. His fine hand was considered difficult to read, but it was not, if you became accustomed to it.”

Robinson recalled, “He was a finely constructed man, with small bones, hands, and feet. He was five feet ten inches tall, slight and quick in movement; he kept his excellent figure and carriage throughout life. The salient expressions of his strong face were conveyed through his brilliant blue eyes, which could change instantly, be impenetrable, mischievous, or express great kindliness and sympathy. He had fair skin and high color and during all the years I knew him wore a mustache…Long before his hair turned white, an iron-grey band at the edge of his brown hair was an outstanding characteristic of his appearance.” 

Social philosopher Lewis Mumford, who knew Nock early in his career: “He was the very model of the old-fashioned gentleman, American style: quiet spoken, fond of good food, punctilious in little matters of courtesy, with a fund of good stories, many of them western; never speaking about himself, never revealing anything directly about himself.” 

Nock was an intensely private man. People who worked with him for years had no idea that he had been a clergyman. “No one knew even where he lived,” noted Van Wyck Brooks, “and a pleasantry in the office was that one could reach him by placing a letter under a certain rock in Central Park.”  Frank Chodorov recalled, “It was only after I was appointed administrator of his estate that I learned of the existence of two full-grown and well-educated sons.” 

“Nock was an individualist,” Chodorov continued, “and he got that way not as the result of study but by force of temperament. As he put it, the ‘furniture’ of his mind was so arranged because no other arrangement would quite fit his mind. A man thinks what he is, Nock would say, and no amount of education can make him think otherwise…he was civilized; knowledgeable but never pedantic, reserved but companionable, cosmopolitan in his tastes and, above all, a gentleman to whom it never occurred to inflict hurt on any man.”

Albert Jay Nock was born October 13, 1870 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was the only child of Emma Sheldon Jay who descended from French Protestants. His father, Joseph Albert Nock, was a hot-tempered steelworker and Episcopal clergyman.

Nock grew up in a semi-rural Brooklyn, New York neighborhood. According to his account, he learned the alphabet by puzzling over a newspaper and asking questions. He didn’t attend school until he was a teenager, but at home he was surrounded by books which he explored. For quite a while, Webster’s Dictionary was his favorite.

When Nock was 10, his father got a job on the upper shore of Lake Huron. There he observed “independence, self-respect, self-reliance, dignity, diligence…Our life was singularly free; we were so little conscious of arbitrary restraint that we hardly knew government existed…On the whole our society might have served pretty well as a standing advertisement for Mr. Jefferson’s notion that the virtues which he regarded as distinctively American thrive best in the absence of government.” 

After attending a private preparatory school, Nock entered St. Stephen’s College (later to become Bard College) in 1887. He relished ancient Greek and Latin literature. He reportedly went on to attend Berkeley Divinity School, Middletown, Connecticut for about a year and was ordained in the Episcopal Church, 1897. The following year, he began serving as assistant rector at St. James Church, Titusville, Pennsylvania.

It was in Titusville that Nock met Agnes Grumbine, and they were married April 25, 1900. He was 29, and she was 24. They had two sons: Samuel, born in 1901, and Francis, born in 1905. Nock left his wife soon thereafter. His sons became college teachers. 

In 1909, he experienced a crisis of faith. He quit the clergy to become an editor of American Magazine, a cauldron of radicalism where he worked four years. He befriended former Toledo mayor and aspiring scholar Brand Whitlock who later wrote a biography of Lafayette. Nock spent time with the likes of muckraking journalists Lincoln Steffens and John Reed.

Nock hung out at the Players Club, fabled gathering place for people in the arts since it was established by actor Edwin Booth and author Mark Twain. A portrait of Mark Twain hangs over a fireplace, and one of his pool cues is on display. Located at 16 Gramercy Park South, Manhattan, it’s a Gothic Revival style five-story house which architect Stanford White transformed into the club in 1888. The Players Club has one of America’s largest libraries on the theatre and portrait paintings by Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent and Norman Rockwell. Nock liked to take mail, eat and play pool at the Players Club. Nock’s business card simply said: “Albert Jay Nock, Players Club, New York.”

Nock had absorbed, too, the ideas of German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer whose radical book Der Staat was published in 1908. An English translation, The State, appeared in 1915. Oppenheimer had noted that there were only two fundamental ways of acquiring wealth — work and robbery. He declared that government was based on robbery.

In 1914, Nock joined the staff of the Nation edited by Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Nock didn’t like the magazine’s support for government interference with the economy, but he admired its courageous opposition to President Woodrow Wilson who maneuvered America into the First World War. One of Nock’s articles, on labor union agitator Samuel Gompers, provoked Wilson’s censors to suppress the Nation.

Eventually, the Nation’s devotion to government interference became too much, and he resigned. Backed by Helen Swift Neilson, daughter of Gustavus Swift and heir to a meat-packing fortune, he became editor of a new magazine of opinion: The Freeman. The first weekly issue appeared March 17, 1920. The magazine measured 8-1/2 inches by 12-1/2 inches and contained 24 pages of articles and letters about politics, literature, music and other topics.

Nock’s principal collaborator was Neilson’s English husband Francis, a former stage director at the London Royal Opera and radical Liberal Member of Parliament who became a leading pacifist. Disgusted by England’s entry in the First World War, he moved to the United States and became an American citizen. He stirred controversy with his book, How Diplomats Make War, published in 1915 by Benjamin W. Huebsch who later was president of The Freeman.

Nock’s policy was laissez faire: hire talented people and let them run. According to biographer Michael Wreszin, “Members of the staff can remember no time when he attempted to revise their work. Copy, including his own, was subject to the managing editor’s demands as to space — but that was the only limitation.”  Although the editorial staff included Suzanne La Follette, a rigorous opponent of government interference with private life, there were contributors like socialist literary critic Van Wyck Brooks, muckraker Lincoln Steffens, Lewis Mumford who believed technology was dehumanizing and Thorstein Veblen who attacked competitive enterprise. The Freeman wasn’t consistently libertarian.

In his contributions, though, Nock discussed many issues involving liberty. Nock on Irish liberty, in the October 26, 1921 Freeman: “We can see freedom in only one light; that is, as something not to be compromised with or watered down…For us, freedom is freedom, absolutely and world without end…we see Ireland demanding only as demanding freedom from political domination by an alien race; and wherever freedom is demanded, be it political, social or economic, we are there unreservedly, and without asking any questions, to back that demand to the utmost of our slender abilities.”

The First World War, September 19, 1923: “The war immensely fortified a universal faith in violence; it set in motion endless adventures in imperialism, endless nationalist ambitions. Every war does this to a degree roughly corresponding to its magnitude. The final settlement at Versailles, therefore, was a mere scramble for loot.”

The Freeman never attracted more than about 7,000 subscribers — far from enough to become self-sustaining. Annual losses reportedly exceeded $80,000. The magazine ceased publication after the March 5, 1924 issue. Nock seems to have contributed 259 pieces. Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick remembered Nock’s Freeman as “admirably written, diverting, original, and full of unpredictable quirks.”

He became a good friend of H.L. Mencken who had edited The Smart Set, then American Mercury. “There is no better companion in the world than Henry,” Nock reported after one Manhattan dinner. Nock considered Mencken “immensely able, unselfconscious, sincere, erudite, simple-hearted, kindly, generous.”

Soon Nock was writing for intellectual magazines like American Mercury, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Saturday Review of Literature and Scribner’s. American Mercury, for instance, published “On Doing the Right Thing.” He wrote: “The practical reason for freedom, then, is that freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fiber can be developed…we have tried law, compulsion and authoritarianism of various kinds, and the result is nothing to be proud of.”

Three admirers from Philadelphia, Ellen Winsor, Rebecca Winsor Evans and Edmund C. Evans, provided funds which enabled Nock to pursue projects of his choosing. He turned to book-length biographical essays. The first was Mr. Jefferson (1926) which skipped the most famous events of the Founder’s life to focus on the development of his mind. H.L. Mencken wrote that Nock’s essay “is accurate, it is shrewd, it is well ordered, and above all it is charming. I know of no other book on Jefferson that penetrates so persuasively to the essential substance of the man.”  Historian Merrill Peterson called Mr. Jefferson “The most captivating single volume in the Jefferson literature.”

Nock loved the 16th century French humanist scholar, extravagant satirist and maverick individualist Francis Rabelais, and in 1929 he wrote a book about him, collaborating with scholar Catherine Rose Wilson.  With her, he edited The Works of Francois Rabelais (two volumes, 1931), and he went on to write A Journey into Rabelais’s France (1934).

Nock embraced ideas of Henry George. “As a social philosopher, George interested me profoundly,” Nock recalled, “as a reformer and publicist, he did not interest me…George’s philosophy was the philosophy of human freedom…he believed that all mankind are indefinitely improvable, and that the freer they are, the more they will improve. He saw also that they can never become politically or socially free until they have become economically free…”    

Meanwhile, in 1930, backed by one Dr. Peter Fireman, Suzanne La Follette and Sheila Hibben had launched the New Freeman, but it lasted only about a year. Nock contributed 54 articles about art, literature and education, reprinted in The Book of Journeyman (1930) 

Nock opposed every form of tyranny. He warned in July 1932, before Hitler came to power: “Things in Germany look bad at this distance. The new government, which is making use of Hitler, seems bent on a Napoleonic absolutism.”  Nock was decades ahead of most intellectuals in recognizing that all tyrants might come from the same totalitarian slime. “Refrain from using the word Bolshevism, or Fascism, Hitlerism, Marxism, Communism,” he noted in November 1933, “and you have no trouble getting acceptance for the principle that underlies them all alike — the principle that the State is everything, and the individual nothing.” 

Nock became an implacable foe of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In May 1934, he wrote: “Probably not many realize how the rapid centralization of government in America has fostered a kind of organized pauperism. The big industrial states contribute most of the Federal revenue, and the bureaucracy distributes it in the pauper states wherever it will do the most good in a political way…All this is due to the iniquitous theory of taxation with which this country has been so thoroughly indoctrinated — that a man should be taxed according to his ability to pay, instead of according to the value of the privileges he obtains from the government.”

Around 1934, Nock was invited to deliver a series of history lectures at Columbia University, and he focused on the struggle for liberty. He developed the lecture texts into his great radical prolemic, Our Enemy, the State. He drew from ideas of German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer who had written about the violent origins of the state. Nock championed the natural rights vision of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, the case for equal freedom articulated by Herbert Spencer. Nock ignored a taboo and spoke kindly of the American Articles of Confederation (1781-1789), the association of states without a central government.  

Our Enemy, the State appeared in 1935. Nock wrote: “There are two methods, or means, and only two, whereby man’s needs and desires can be satisfied. One is the production and exchange of wealth; this is the economic means. The other is the uncompensated appropriation of wealth produced by others; this is the political means…the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation. No primitive State known to history originated in any other manner.”

“The State,” he continued, “both in its genesis and by its primary intention, is purely anti-social. It is not based on the idea of natural rights, but on the idea that the individual has no rights except those that the State may provisionally grant him. It has always made justice costly and difficult of access, and has invariably held itself above justice and common morality whenever it could advantage itself by so doing.”

In his June 1936 Atlantic Monthly article Isaiah’s Job,” Nock explained his view that the future of civilization depended on what he called “the Remnant”: “They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best they can. They need to be encouraged and braced up, because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society, and meanwhile your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant.”

There was yet another revival of The Freeman in 1937. The instigator seems to have been balding, pipe-smoking Frank Chodorov who had met Nock the year before at the Players Club. He had become director of the recently-chartered Henry George School, and The Freeman served as its flagship publication. It was an 18-24 page monthly. Chodorov published at least eight articles by Nock.

He turned to writing his last, most charming and best-known book — Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. He worked at a house in Canaan, Connecticut. He remained as reticent as ever, omitting most personal details about his life, but he gracefully chronicled the development of his ideas. Nock assailed one of his favorite targets, compulsory government schooling which promoted “superstitious servile reverence for a sacrosanct State.”  He lamented, “The American people once had their liberties; they had them all; but apparently they could not rest o’nights until they had turned them over to a prehensile crew of professional politicians  Harper’s published Memoirs of a Superfluous Man in 1943.   

Nock seems to have had few friends during his last years. He corresponded with Discovery of Freedom author Rose Wilder Lane and former American Mercury editor Paul Palmer. He often lunched with Frank Chodorov who recalled his times with Nock: “he would regale you with bits of history that threw light on a headline, or quote from the classics a passage currently applicable, or take all the glory out of a ‘name’ character with a pithy statement of fact. He was a library of knowledge and a fount of wisdom, and if you were a kindred spirit you could have your pick of both.

Maverick oilman William F. Buckley, Texas-born son of Irish immigrants, saw himself as part of “the Remnant” whom Nock cherished. Periodically he invited Nock to lunch at his family’s Great Elm mansion in Sharon, Connecticut — despite Nock’s well-known bohemian ways and hostility to the Catholic church. Buckley cherished Nock’s individualism and his scholarship, and Memoirs of a Superfluous Man helped encourage his son William F. Buckley Jr. to defy the collectivist trends of the time.

Since no magazine would take Nock’s writing, several friends set up the National Economic Council. Starting on May 15, 1943, it published the Economic Council Review of Books which he edited. He continued almost two years until failing health led him to bow out. This work was picked up by Rose Wilder Lane.

In 1945, Nock developed lymphatic leukemia, and he gradually ran out of steam. He had told his son Francis: “If sometimes you begin to think the old man is pretty good, and you feel that maybe you ought to be a bit proud of him…realize that he ain’t so much after all.”

He moved in with his friend Ruth Robinson who lived in Wakefield, Rhode Island. There he died August 19, 1945. He was 74. A local Episcopal priest conducted a simple funeral service at Robinson’s house, and he was buried nearby in Riverside Cemetery.

In his quiet way, Nock inspired others to carry on. Frank Chodorov championed his kind of individualism in books like One is a Crowd (1952), The Rise and Fall of Society (1959), Out of Step (1962) and The Income Tax: Root of All Evil (1963). Chodorov edited analysis (he didn’t capitalize the first “a”), a monthly four-page newsletter, then became an editor of Human Events, a weekly newsletter. Chodorov started the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists which aimed to nurture individualism on American college campuses.

In 1950, Nock’s former editorial associate Suzanne La Follette joined with Life editor John Chamberlain and Newsweek columnist Henry Hazlitt to launch another Freeman. There were editorial disagreements, and in 1955 The Freeman was acquired by Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education which has published it ever since.

Albert Jay Nock’s quiet voice has had an influence far beyond what anyone dared imagine a half-century ago. He showed that an intelligent person could embrace radical individualism, which was tremendously important for younger people coming along amidst a collectivist age. He set an inspiring example with his steadfast devotion, cosmopolitan scholarship and elegant literary style. He was right to insist that liberty could be regained only by winning people’s hearts, one by one.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.