Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Morris Run, Tioga County
Scott Nearing turned Thoreau's experiment into a lifetime of simple living and wrote dozens of books on topics varying from Socialism to subsistence farming.
Scott Nearing was born in Morris Run, Pennsylvania in 1883. A professor at Penn in the early 1900s, he was dismissed from Penn in a situation that initiated the first large academic freedom debate in the United States. After a short stay as Dean at the University of Toledo, Ohio, Nearing left academia forever. The last fifty years of his life were a testament to independent subsistence living in rural New England. This period was to be the ultimate realization of self-reliance in a Walden Pond style. He was an intellectual fore-runner for the flower-child generation and also was an early advocate and practitioner of vegetarianism and organic farming. He died in 1983 in Maine.
Scott Nearing was a man of extremely varied living styles. He was in the course of his life both an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the face of the back-to-the-land movement which became popular among portions of the youth movement in the latter portion of the 1960s. Born August 6, 1883 in Morris Run, Tioga County, he grew up in a rather privileged position. Morris Run was a small mining town, but it was a company-town, under the iron control of his grandfather. Nearing himself was the son a storekeeper, but through the intervention of his grandfather often was involved in mining activities.
For his and his siblings' high school educations, the family moved to Philadelphia, only returning to Morris Run during the summer vacation. Nearing excelled academically and won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he initially studied law. This did not suit him however and switched after a year into Wharton, where he would find his niche in economics. He graduated from Penn in 1905 with a B.S. in economics and a Bachelor of Oratory. He became an assistant instructor in economics in 1906. His first major publication, in 1908, was an economics textbook which became the standard choice for high school curricula across the country.
A talented writer, orator, and teacher, Nearing earned himself a significant amount of prestige from both his skill and his subjects. Beyond his skill in the classroom, that prestige was a double-edged sword to Nearing. It allowed him, via royalties and speaking engagements, to supplement his meager salary from Penn while publishing research of his own interest. However, in 1915 he was curtly dismissed by the Board of Trustees from the post of assistant professor of economics. This was an extremely suspicious move, happening much later than the standard dismissal. Nearing himself in his autobiography believed that the Board had traded his dismissal for a $1,000,000 appropriation from the state of Pennsylvania. The Board itself was no fan of Nearing who they viewed as a radical, due to his views on capital and labor. While not a Marxist, he believed the competition of the capitalist system was increasingly focused on the expansion of capital at the cost of labor. In his autobiography, The Making of a Radical, reflecting on his work in Financing the Wage Earner's Family, Nearing mentions how labor is regarded as inherently different from capital, since a businessman's capital is taxed on his net, while the laborer is taxed on his gross. Unexpectedly, Nearing's termination caused a furor to erupt from the collective educational community. Even those who detested Nearing personally due to his stances, yet having no doubt as to his superior abilities in the classroom, rushed to defend him. This defense was certainly not on principle, but in the realm of self-interest. After all, if Nearing could be dismissed randomly and without cause, then any member of the academic community was equally vulnerable to such a fate. The uproar became one of the first academic freedom cases in the United States.
While Nearing had a significant on the educational culture of both Penn and other institutions, he never returned to his position at Penn. He accepted a dean's position at the University of Toledo. He was there a short term however as in 1917 he was dismissed by a margin of one vote for seditious statements; Nearing, a committed pacifist, has spoken out against the furor for World War I and such actions were considered criminal. This was to be the end of his teaching career. On top of this new exile from his chosen profession, in 1918 he was put on trial along with his publisher for his piece The Great Madness. The charges were, essentially, sedition. Ironically, defending himself Nearing was acquitted, while his publisher was fined for publishing the piece.
Nearing in the period after World War I made his living mainly by speaking engagement, but times were tough. For much of his adult life to this point he had identified with the message of the Socialists and was therefore a member, but he eventually grew into the Communist Party. In early 1930 he was expelled (he actually had resigned) from the Communist Party for advocating an explanation of imperialism that was beyond and different Lenin's doctrine. At the height of the Depression, in 1932, and basically finished with the organized Left, Nearing left his New York City apartment behind and journeyed with the woman who would eventually become his second wife, Helen Knothe, to a farm in rural Vermont.
This was the beginning of the great experiment that was the second half of Nearing's life. During this period he and Helen, who would become his wife in 1947 following the death of his first wife, would attempt to live in a style that was lock-step with their personal philosophies. At this farm in rural Vermont they would build their own stone buildings, grow their own foods using methods now recognized as “organic,” and live simply. In short, the Nearings were searching for a self-reliant and self-sufficient lifestyle free from the trappings of modern civilization. In 1954 Nearing, together with his wife Helen, authored what is perhaps the most famous book associated with his name: Living the Good Life. This book was about their lives in Vermont between 1932 and 1952 when they moved to Harborside, Maine. It described the physical and philosophical processes involved in that time period. However, the Nearings' real goal in this period was to form a cooperative community in the area around their farm. And though it was the last chapter of their book, this goal never truly materialized due to the suspicious independence of their neighbors.
The move to Maine in 1952 signaled the abandonment of the communal nature of their lifestyle, but they both continued to publish and welcome visitors. With the rise of the hippie culture in the 1960s, the Nearings enjoyed new popular appeal as their philosophy and example were a great influence in the “back-to-the-land” movement. His power as an intellectual never diminished, though his interpersonal tone was somewhat gruff, and around his 80 th birthday authored his autobiography containing an obvious political slant (which was utterly inalienable from the man).
Nearing during the latter years of his life became a vigorous vegetarian, which was only natural due to his intellectual Tolstoyan background and his pacifism. In the end Scott Nearing took that pacifistic belief to unheard of heights by ceasing to eat entirely shortly before his 100 th birthday. Scott Nearing: self-sufficient economist and intellectual, died from self-starvation on August 24, 1983.
The Solution of the Child Labor Problem. New York: Moffat, Yard, and Co., 1911.
Financing the Wage-Earner's Family. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1913.
Anthracite; an Instance of Natural Resource Monopoly. Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1915.
The Great Madness. New York: Rand School of Social Science, 1917.
Oil and the Germs of War. Ridgewood, NJ: Nellie S. Nearing, 1923.
Democracy Is Not Enough. New York: Island Workshop Press, 1945.
Economics for the Power Age. New York: J. Day Co, 1952.
Man's Search for the Good Life. Harborside, ME: Social Science Institute, 1954.
(with Helen Nearing). Living the Good Life. Harborside, ME: Social Science Institute, 1954.
The Making of a Radical. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Civilization and Beyond. Harborside, ME: Social Science Institute, 1975.
(with Helen Nearing). Building and Using Our Sun-Heated Greenhouse. Charlotte, VT: Garden Way Pub., 1977.