Autobiographical Sketch

I was born at Scranton, Pennsylvania, on the thirteenth of October, sometime in the early 'seventies. I do not know the exact date, but it could hardly have been earlier than 1874. When required to produce a date in order to get passports, etc., I have put it down as 1873. I am sure of the day, however, for my mother's birthday came ten days earlier, so we always held a joint celebration on the third of October. I was born at Scranton because my grandparents lived there then, and my mother went home for the occasion, as women often did at that time. I understand they are less sentimental about such matters now, and bear their young in hospitals.

My mother's name was Emma Sheldon Jay. My father's name was Joseph Albert. He was a clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church; so was his youngest brother, Edwin Gaines. I have mentioned elsewhere that their father, a steelmaker in Staffordshire, was a licensed lay preacher of the Methodist persuasion; so the interest in religion seems to have been more or less hereditary in the family. For a brief while I have held a license and had an unimportant position in the Church. This being virtually a sinecure, it gave me time to pursue some advanced studies in history and philosophy. In my Memoirs I have told everything of any consequence about my paternal ancestry; indeed, I believe I have told all I know about it, except that my grandparents lived successively at Windsor Locks, Connecticut; at Ramapo (I believe, or perhaps Sloatsburg) in Rockland County, New York; and at what is now Erastina, on Staten Island, where my grandfather built a rather fine house, for those days. This was before the industry in heavy chemicals on the opposite shore in New Jersey ruined the region with its vapours. My grandfather was superintendent of steelworkers in all three places. His oldest son Thomas Gill (my grandmother's name was Maria Gill) was president of the Rome Locomotive Works, at Rome, N.Y. He built the miniature locomotives in use on the Elevated before electrification. I saw one of these a few years ago, hooked up to some work-cars on a switch below Eighth St. on the Sixth Avenue line, so I fancy some still may exist. The brother next older, George Franklin, was superintendent of a rolling-mill for the Union Pacific Railway. I think he and my father were both born in Rockland County, but I am not sure; perhaps at Windsor Locks; perhaps one at the one place, the other at the other; I really have no idea.

My mother's ancestry were from New York. Relatives have told me that I am somewhere in the family line of Chief Justice Jay, but I know nothing about this, and was never enough interested to look it up. I suppose it might be by way of his brother James, but I have actually no idea. All I know about James is that he invented the invisible ink which Washington gave his spies on John Jay's recommendation (which I have seen) for use in writing their reports. This ink appears to have been something quite remarkable, and Washington had a good deal of trouble, for some reason, to get enough of it. Chief Justice Jay was truly great and in every way admirable. I have always regarded him as next to John Adams, the most profound and far-sighted statesman of his time. I should be much more concerned with finding myself in his spiritual line than in his family line, though it is true, as Ernest Renan said, that "man does not improvise himself," and ancestry does count even as it does with dogs and horses.

As might be supposed, my parents were quite poor, but we somehow never seemed to lack anything we needed, and I never saw a trace of discontent or a failure in cheerfulness over their lot in life, as indeed over anything. We always lived well. I have often wondered how any amount of money would have improved our condition or would have caused the springs of happiness within ourselves to run any clearer; and I do not even now see how it would. In point of wealth the social life around us in my childhood and youth was remarkably undifferentiated. Some were richer than others; but the rich lived without ostentation, mostly by preference, but largely in conformity to the rather crude and superficial spirit of equality which prevailed at the time. This was especially true of the social life in our Michigan lumbertown when I was eight or ten years old. The millionaires of the industry went about in their shirt-sleeves all summer, and their families put on no airs whatever. A drummer getting off the steamboat from Detroit one hot night saw a dilapidated-looking figure in shirt-sleeves standing on the wharf, and offered him a quarter to carry his satchel to the hotel, which the man cheerfully agreed to do and did, never letting on that he was by far the richest man in town, perhaps as rich as anyone in Michigan. He was a Yankee from Maine; he said afterwards simply that he was not above earning a quarter so easily, and hoped he never would be, because a quarter was always a good thing to have, and you could never tell what it might grow up to.

This social atmosphere agreed with my temperament, with the result of fixing in me a pretty clear idea of what money will buy and what it will not buy; also that if a person works to gain either one he must make up his mind to gain it largely at the expense of the other. I learned to want little that money could bring me, and I have had all I wanted. If I had ever so much money I would still choose to live exactly as I do, for I regard the accumulation of purchaseable goods as a mere burden—impedimenta, as the Romans called it—something that acted in pedes, slowing down the progress of one's feet in the direction one wanted them to take. But I say this entirely without prejudice to those who choose otherwise, for I see no moral quality in my preference for making life's journey with light baggage; I simply do not envy them. I have all along been clearly aware that my rich acquaintances would have a great horror of living as I do, quite as I should be lost and distracted in living as they do; and I have no doubt that theirs is the better way for them, as mine is the better for me.

This preference probably has its root in the fierce resentful hatred of responsibility with which I was born and which is one of my leading characteristics; the cause no doubt, that did most to make me an easy prey for the philosophy and individualism as expounded by Spencer. Responsibility to myself and for myself, yes. I am, as I have always been proud to accept that, proud to assert it in the face of God, man, beast, or devil. But responsibility for anything beyond that I accept only on the strength of the most searching evidence; and I have a peculiarly resolute resentment against the impositions by State, Church or social conventions of responsibilities which are purely artificial in substance and fraudulent in intention.

In looking over my writings I see that this disposition has given them a uniform temper. If they were done by another hand, and I were examining them with a critical eye, I should say that they were clearly the work of a man with an acute sense of responsibility, for truth of fact and logic, but none whatever for his effect or lack of effect on the reader; in short, a man who was, in his own view, responsible only to and for himself. That this is so seems evident from the fact that although I am well known as an exponent of individualism's philosophy, I have never made a single personal disciple. The reason is, as my writings plainly show by their temper&#151for every writer's temper pervades his writings and can neither possibly be concealed nor counterfeited—I have not only never tried, but never even wished, to make one. If my writings have led anyone to broaden the scope of his mind or to contract it, that is his affair, not mine. The spirit of Rabbinism, the disposition by ever so little to invade another person's consciousness and take possession of it, is utterly hateful to me as being, in my judgement, an impudent intrusion. That it is so, I think, is pointedly suggested by the quality of those who pursue this practice; they are politicians, propagandists, quidnuncs, adepts in "social science," uplifters, sectarian crusaders. One says of such what Virgil said to Dante of some minor malefactors in the outskirts of hell: "Look, and pass them by."

One may see from this how easily the temper of individualism incurs the charge of arrogance. I have always had to face this charge; I think unjustly. As far as I know, I have no pride of opinion. The question of who is right and who is wrong has seemed to me always too small to be worth a moment's thought, while the question of what is right and what is wrong has seemed all-important. I am by far more grateful for correction of thought or belief than for any other service, and I am sure that those who have corrected me will say that I have been quick and happy to acknowledge it. I feel that the true individualist is bound by his philosophy to hold his opinions under correction from any one at any time; to state them freely and in full, on any proper occasion; to discuss them objectively, but never to hold a brief for them or dispute an opposing opinion in the manner of an attorney, even though the opinion be absurd. If a person believes the earth is flat, the individualist will not dispute his belief or enter into any argument about it; and this not only, or not nearly so much, because the belief is absurd, as because the individualist is conscious that the person holding it is within his rights, and he must respect them. I speak only of course, concerning honest opinions, honestly held.

The individualist temper, however, was not originally mine, but in so far as I have any claim to it now, it was a rather early acquisition. In childhood and youth my temper was quick, very violent, easily stirred into explosions of impatience and anger, subsiding again as quickly, leaving me ashamed and regretful, ready to go any distance to make up for the outburst. I was never tempted to be vindictive or malicious, but quite the contrary. The discipline I applied to my temper is worth mentioning because I have applied it as successfully to other irregularities. Mark Twain said he had often sworn off smoking and could never keep to it, but when he swore off wanting to smoke he found he had no trouble at all. I seem to have anticipated him, in principle, for though I tried hard to quit losing my temper I was unable to do it, but when at the age of twenty-five or so I deliberately tried to quit wanting to lose my temper, I had no difficulty worth speaking of, nor have I had any since that time.

My likes and dislikes have always been extremely strong and positive, not in any way determined by convention or any other superficial considerations such as those of family, social standing, wealth, class, creed, or even of humanity, as rated by zoological definition. In this as elsewhere I am strictly an individualist. Someone asked me years ago if it were true that I disliked Jews, and I replied that it was certainly true, not at all because they are Jews but because they are folks, and I don't like folks. All differentiations of this kind are foreign to me. My disposition toward mankind has been greatly modified of late, however, since R. A. Cram made hash of the possibilist theory of man's place in nature on which I had been stumbling along so many years. I have explained this in my Memoirs. Nevertheless, I should still say that my principal faults and failings are those of temper, as they have always been, especially in the way of impatience and disregard of the weakness or incapacity of men. I have never been able to "suffer fools gladly," as the Apostle says one should, and this has blinded me to the sterling good qualities of a great many people, which is most unjust. I try to overcome this bad disposition, but with poor success.

Hence it is not surprising that I have no power of attraction or any faculty of attaching people to myself. I am said to be difficult of acquaintance, unwilling to meet any one half way, and showing a social manner which is easy, not diffident, but formal and unresponsive, tending constantly to hold people off. I am aware of this and regret it as a serious fault, and one which gives rise to much unfortunate misunderstanding; and yet it is one which is extremely hard to deal with for several reasons, most of these running back to a root in the individualist philosophy.

In a society like ours, bitterly resentful of privacy, the integrity of one's personality is constantly under attack from all sides; not only under direct frontal attack, but, which is worse, it is always exposed to insidious influences which will infect it and rot it down. To the individualist, the integrity thus menaced is the most precious thing on earth; and the dangers to it being what they are, they beget a corresponding extreme of sensitiveness and caution which in time becomes a sort of secondary instinct. "Hide thy life," said Epicurus, and the individualist is the one who most diligently lays that invaluable advice to heart.

Like Prince von Bismarck in diplomacy, I have no secrets. There is nothing in my history that for precautionary reasons I should have any wish to cover up. I am not at all shy, diffident, self-conscious, and no one could care less than I for what might be thought or said of him. Yet all the information I have ever given out about myself is what appears in my Memoirs and what I am putting down here. In the Atlantic of March, 1940, I published a brief essay setting forth a rule for biographical writing, and my Memoirs were an experiment in keeping to that rule. The purpose of the book (which no reviewer seemed to discern, though it was stated plainly in the Preface) was to trace the growth of a philosophy of life. I think that anyone who had read my essay would give me credit for keeping to my own rule reasonably well. There is not much in the book but what bears pretty directly on its purpose.

The boarding-school I attended was in Pekin, Illinois, near Peoria. My undergraduate work was done at St. Stephen's College, Annandale New York, about twenty miles above Poughkeepsie. Both institutions were under auspices of the Protestant Episcopal Church, which is the American agency of the Established Church of England. The college was modelled after one of the Oxford colleges—in spirit as well as in all other respects. I have given a full account of my education in my Memoirs, and I can think of nothing more to say about it. The lumber- town in Michigan, where we lived, was Alpena, at the head of Thunder Bay. My father built a very good stone church there, which I imagine must still be standing, much as it was.

I have had sound good health always. I escaped all children's diseases except measles, which gave me a hard run at the age of thirty-five. Curiously, in spite of excellent health, I cannot remember a day when I was wholly free from pain of some kind. There must have been such days, of course, probably many, but I do not recall one. I never had a headache, and with all my rough seafaring on the North Atlantic I was never sea sick. Seeing how severely others suffer from these two disabilities, I have sometimes wished I might have one go at them, so that I might sympathise properly, for their attacks must be really dreadful. My mother was subject to both, but latterly the headache left her; my father had occasional headaches. My nervous system is so highly organized that I am uncommonly sensitive to pain, though I bear it rather stoically, nor does it affect my disposition; in fact, I am somewhat less irritable under pain than when free of it.

I am less sensitive to heat and cold than most people, though my mind is more active in summer. I dress lightly in winter, and sleep under unusually light bed-covering. Like Goethe, when the barometer is low, I am inert. The thought of action becomes formidable, and I have to put on a great deal of extra steam to get anything done. A thunderstorm retards my circulation, making me suffer the distress of slow suffocation; the pressure and constriction begin to lighten when the storm is about half over. My constitution is of the spring-steel type, flexible, always bending, but so far not breaking, though I have never been careful of myself. I have great power of resistance to certain impacts; to others almost none, as for instance, sudden loud noises or the motion of crowds. A walk of ten blocks on Fifth Avenue at noon or across Times Square in the evening, uses me up. A lively dinner party guarantees me a sleepless night, and a serious sustained conversation at lunch puts me out of action for the whole afternoon. I sleep soundly at full length prone, apparently as a rule motionless, for the bed-covering seems hardly disturbed at all and only perhaps twice a year do I wake with any consciousness of having dreamed, virtually never remembering a single item of what the dream was. I wake invariably in low spirits, the fit lasting usually less than an hour.

I notice the deterioration due to advancing age in only two directions. My memory for names was always weak, and has now become markedly weaker; and the same is true of my sense of direction, which was always poor. In New York, for example, I find myself confused oftener than formerly, and obliged to note which way is east or west, uptown or downtown; especially when coming out of a subway or getting off a bus. My sense of hearing, taste and smell, always very acute, seem unimpaired, and my eyes still stand hard usage as well as ever; and I notice no weakening of my appetites or digestive functions. Something of this is probably due to my having lived always on the abstemious side, especially in the matter of drink and simple diet. I have done this purely by taste and preference, never tempted to any excess, so I can claim no credit for it.

Persistence of reproductive power interests me on account of its apparent relation to longevity. It seems that as long as you can reproduce your kind, nature will stand by and give you a lift in emergency of illness. This is most noticeable in the convalescence of children, when the full development of reproductive power is as yet in prospect. But when that power fails, nature cares nothing for you and will not keep you, but leaves you unaided to the ministrations of the quacks and schochetim.

Probably in my case this power, always strong, has lasted as well as it has by reason of its having been relatively but little used. No women's attraction for me has ever been primarily libidinous, nor ever remained purely so. The interest stirred by what we commonly call sex-appeal never affected me. I am a great admirer of women's physical beauty, as I am of the objects in a jeweller's window; I look at both in the spirit of a delighted connoisseurship, with not the least desire of possession indeed the free offer of possession would be most embarrassing. What attracts me to women in the first instance is the display of psychical qualities combined with a force of intellect sufficient to carry them and make them effective. This combination is not often found, especially in our American society; and when it exists it is too often vitiated by sex-consciousness. As a rule, American and English women seem to me morbidly conscious of their sex.

Where it is found at its free best, however, as I have explained in my Memoirs, the ensuing relationship simply reduces physical possession to what seems to me to be its proper level in the scale of importance, as something to be undertaken or not as the progress of the relationship shall determine. Thus I have enjoyed the very extreme of what might be called a eunuch's intimacy with admirable and charming women who were no more interested than I in importing the element of physical possession into our relationship; and again in other and much fewer instances, it was clear that the intimacy would be greatly improved and strengthened by admitting their importation, so it was accordingly admitted. The aim of a free association between men and women is the enhancement of psychical values and the conservation of romance, beauty and poetry in human existence. I think the view set forth in my Memoirs is the correct one, that association in marriage is inimical to this, as involving a radical confusion of function.

I have no more faculty for making myself interesting to women than to men; still less making myself loved or even much cared for. On the other hand, I have known only two men and one woman in my life to whom I could present myself unreservedly; that is to say, leaving no area of consciousness which they were not free to enter and to explore as they chose.

If I were asked what my life has been worth to the world, I should say actually nothing but potentially perhaps a good deal. My few achievements will never be accepted, but if they were I think society might profit by them. What, then, have I done?

Everyone knows that all attempts at a large-scale incorporation of mankind in any field of enterprise have failed, and in the long run broken down. I believe I am the first to show not only why they have failed, but why they must fail. I have shown why political nationalism will be forever impracticable, and all forms of political organisation beyond the simplest and smallest; also the large-scale organisation of religion, education, labour, and other activities. In short, I have pointed out that as long as the disintegrating forces of these great material laws, acting in concert, is what it is, human societies must hereafter present the same pattern of rise and fall which they have hitherto presented, and with approximately the same periodicity. I have also been the first, I think, to show some of the tremendous implications of R. A. Cram's thesis of man's place in nature, when carried out to its logical length, which for some reason Cram did not do. By the terms of his own thesis his succeeding book, The End of Democracy, had no point whatever and I cannot understand his writing it. I have not worked out these matters in full, but I have written enough to show clearly the line of approach which an exhaustive treatise should take.

For a person of almost unlimited leisure, I have written very little and fitfully. My inclination has always been towards literary criticism, with which I have done virtually nothing. My reasons for this were the dearth of eligible subjects, and the non-existence of any periodical in which serious criticism could appear. Aside from my work on Rabelais, Thomas Jefferson and Henry George, with two or three short essays, my dealings with literature have been in the way of reviewing, which I like to do. My brief essay on "Artemus Ward," and one equally brief on "The Misuses of Adversity," both reprinted from the Atlantic in the volume called Free Speech and Plain Language, would be perhaps enough to suggest the kind of thing I should most enjoy doing and would have done diligently if I had lived in an earlier period. So much of my casual writing has had to do with public affairs that I suppose I am put down as a journalist or publicist, neither of which I could possibly be.

My literary style has been well spoken of, as showing due respect for my native tongue. I am pleased to hear it called distinctively American. One critic remarked that it forms a perfect bridge between the Classical English prose of the eighteenth century and the American vernacular; and that the transitions were invariably made in the very best of good taste. Nothing could have been more pleasing to me than this. The essay on "The Misuses of Adversity" has many instances of the kind of thing referred to, so if my critic's opinion holds good there it would probably hold good throughout my work.

On reading this over I see that I must add a word or two to what I have said about my indifference to the physical lure of women. This trait, I believe, is due to, or I might say is part of, my almost abnormal hatred for any loss of self-control however slight or momentary. The sight of anything like self-abandonment, for instance the sight of a drunken person, fills me with aversion amounting to dread. So, going back to Mark Twain's rule, the thought of the reaction from yielding to an unwarranted sensuous appetite reduces one to an ad hoc impotence. The point is not that desire is repressed; the desire is simply not there. If affectional associations warrant the desire, which in my case has not often happened, that is another matter. If they do not, you might keep me abed with any Helen or Cleopatra until doomsday, and she would get nothing out of it. By count half a dozen times in my life some circumstance has caused me to sleep with some woman with whom I had what I called a eunuch's relationship of absolute freedom from conventional restraint. We were fond of each other and thoroughly enjoyed the intimacies of being abed together, and the fact that we carried them no further than we did was due to nothing but disinclination.

My only failure in emotional self-control which so far has seemed unconquerable is brought about by my hearing a certain order of music or by reading prose or verse that is composed in the grand style. Not even as a child have I ever shed tears for grief or pain, but a suite of Bach or certain quartettes of Haydn will put them beyond my control. So also will choruses of Aeschylus and Sophocles, as passages from English prose writers such as Bishop Butler, William Law, the Cambridge Platonists. The more grandiose order of music, the later symphonies of Beethoven, the operas of Wagner, Berlioz, Ernest Reyer—nothing of this disturbs my emotional balance in the least.

I may mention one or two characteristic traits as having no virtue whatever, because they are mine by birth, not by acquisition. I have always been singularly free of envy, jealousy, covetousness; I but vaguely understand them. Having no ambition, I have always preferred the success of others to my own, and had more pleasure in it. I never had the least desire for place or prominence, least of all for power; and this was fortunate for me because the true individualist must regard power over others as preeminently something to be loathed and shunned.

Introducing Nock ||| Biography ||| Bibliography ||| Selected Essays
Challenge ||| Divagations ||| Nockian Society ||| Books in Print

Latest Authorized Area ||| Fulton's Lair

hits since May 16, 1998