He was 32 and had taught economics for seven years at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. A child of privilege and the grandson of a coal baron, he had become a critic of capitalism, arguing that unfettered wealth stifled initiative and impeded economic advancement.
Over 50 years later, he became famous as an advocate of simple living and homesteading. On my first date with Betsy in 1977, while I was working at an “alternative” newspaper, we talked about Nearing and the book he wrote with his wife Helen, “Living the Good Life.” Its title forms part of the name of this blog.
The Nearings dropped out of mainstream American life in 1932, moving to rural Vermont and, in 1952, to Maine. Their goal was self-reliance. They built their own stone houses, grew their own food, cut their own wood, earned cash from maple syrup and blueberries, and avoided meat, fish, eggs, milk, coffee, tea and alcohol. Scott Nearing died shortly after his 100th birthday.
Many people know that story. Fewer know about Nearing’s life before he went “back to the land.”
It wasn’t surprising that Nearing was fired by the Wharton School, whose board of trustees was dominated by bankers, lawyers, corporate executives and financiers. After all, Nearing had written an open letter to right-wing evangelist Billy Sunday urging him to apply the Gospel to working conditions under industrial capitalism.
Still, his dismissal 100 years ago raised a ruckus, inspiring Wharton’s faculty to send a letter to 1,500 newspapers defending him. But writer and Socialist Upton Sinclair told Nearing he didn’t belong at a university. “Instead of addressing small numbers of college boys, you will be able to address audiences of men,” Sinclair wrote.
Nearing started teaching at the University of Toledo, but was fired from there also, because of his pacifism. He made hundreds of antiwar speeches during World War I and was indicted for sedition, for allegedly obstructing enlistment of soldiers (the charges were dismissed). He also spoke out against child labor and racial discrimination, and promoted women’s rights as early as 1912.
He became a member of the Socialist Party, which was strong in the early ’20s, and visited the Soviet Union in 1925 and China in 1927. He joined the Communist Party, writing for the Daily Worker from 1928 to 1930. But, ever the individualist, he was drummed out of the party for his non-conforming ideas on imperialism.
He and Helen wrote “Living the Good Life” in 1954, with the subtitle “How To Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World.” It took a while to catch on, but it struck a chord with baby boomers. In 1970 it sold more than 200,000 copies. I encountered it in 1973, when I was 23, unemployed and disillusioned with orthodox versions of success. Although I lacked the skills to build a stone house and ultimately worked for a mainstream newspaper, Nearing’s ideas had a profound effect on me.
In 1973, Penn reversed its dismissal of Nearing, making him an honorary emeritus professor. In 1975, he advised young Americans to “stop relying on the corner drugstore, the supermarket and the job market, stop relying on the U.S. way of life and begin to develop a way of your own.” In 1976, I met and interviewed Nearing when he came to Amherst for a conference on alternative energy. In 1981, he had a bit part in the movie “Reds,” and even appeared on many TV talk shows.
Nearing admired Leo Tolstoy, the Russian count who also challenged the social system he lived under. And like Tolstoy, in the last years of his life he was surrounded by disciples, hosting as many as 2,000 a week. He was still a vegetarian and still splitting logs at 98, and said he had not seen a doctor in decades. After turning 100, he decided his time had come, and stopped eating. It was truly a good life.