Henry Hazlitt on His Education and Career
From the Wall Street Journal and Wicksteed to the New York Times and Mises
by Henry Hazlitt
Excerpted from Hazlitt’s remarks at his 70th birthday celebration.
In the last year of high school, I developed what I suppose might be called intellectual awareness. I got interested in philosophy and psychology. My great gods were Herbert Spencer and William James. I was going to go to Harvard, and major in psychology, and become a professor of psychology, writing a little philosophy on the side, like William James. But none of this was to be, because of something called a shortage of funds. So I had to compromise by going to the College of the City of New York, where the tuition was free. But even after a few months there I had to face the fact that I had to quit college and go to work to support my mother as well as myself.
However, I hadn't given up the idea of being a writer. I thought the best way to be that and still earn a living was to get on a newspaper. Well, for some reason or other, none of the major New York newspapers seemed to be very eager for my services, and the only place I could find an opening was on The Wall Street Journal. So I grabbed it.
The Wall Street Journal at that time (if I seem now to speak in somewhat derogatory terms of it) was comparatively obscure, and not the great national newspaper that it is today, under the editorship of Vermont Royster. I was supposed to know something about business and finance. I knew nothing about business or finance — and, moreover, I hadn't the slightest ambition to learn. My head was in the clouds, dreaming of philosophy. Every evening — in all the time I could spare, anyway, from dancing and entering dance contests — I was secretly writing a book with the ambitious title of Thinking as a Science.
Yes, the thing was published — and it sold, too. In fact, it outsold anything I have since written except Economics in One Lesson and Will Dollars Save the World? And that reminds me of a wonderful piece of advice that was given by the celebrated editor Arthur Brisbane to a friend of mine who was in his first year in the newspaper game, when he asked the great man for some words of wisdom.
"Young man," said Arthur Brisbane, "remember one thing. Never lose your superficiality."
It was very wise advice, and every time I have forgotten it I have got into trouble.
In order to hold my job, I finally did get around to reading books on business and finance, and I began to read the standard economic textbooks of the period. Then I made the amazing discovery that economics required just as much hard thought, subtle thought, precise thought as the most abstruse problems of philosophy or psychology or physical science. A while later I stumbled upon a wonderful book in the public library. (As I say, when I look back everything important that has happened to me seems to have been accidental.) I thought it was my private discovery, and it practically was at that time. The book was titled The Common Sense of Political Economy by Philip H. Wicksteed. For the first time, the world of economics really opened up to me, and I caught my first glimpse of the fact — which Ludwig von Mises was later to make much more explicit — that the world of economics is almost coextensive with the whole world of human action and of human decision.
The Influence of Friends
I started to say how lucky I've been in my friends: but I have time to talk of only three or four of them.
The first one I want to talk about is Benjamin M. Anderson, who died in 1949. He was first the economist of the Bank of Commerce and later of the Chase National Bank. I was, at that time, in the early 1920s, financial editor of the New York Evening Mail. I used to go to see him about once a week to talk about economic developments. I read his magnificent book, The Value of Money, which is one of the classics of American economic writing and world monetary literature. Through his incisive mind, in my discussions with him, my thought was enormously stimulated.
But here comes another set of accidents. I got sort of pushed into the job as the book editor of the New York Sun. Five years later I became literary editor of The Nation, and so I spent the ten years from 1925 to 1934 writing on general literature.
In those ten years, among others whom I met was the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. I first admired him through his books, and later got to know him personally. In fact, there was a time when he and his then publisher, W. W. Norton, suggested that I do a biography of him. I spent a good deal of time with him, in New York and London, in the period of 1928–1929, until one day, while reminiscing for my benefit, he suddenly said, "You know, I have had a very interesting life; I think I'd like to do my own autobiography." And he did — 25 years later!
I come now to H.L. Mencken. I had admired and almost idolized Mencken as a writer long before I got to meet him, about 1930 or so. Three years later he astonished me by making the big mistake of his life: he asked me to succeed him as editor of The American Mercury, which for a while I did. In 1934 I got back into the economic field again. I went from my short editorship of The American Mercury to The New York Times, for which I wrote most of the financial and economic editorials for the next twelve years.
I got to know, then, first through his books and then by the great honor of meeting him personally, Ludwig von Mises. His thought has had more influence on me than the thought of any other single person in the last 25 years.
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