Memories of Albert Jay Nock
and Francis Neilson
[Reprinted from Fragments, April-June 1982]
Was Albert Jay Nock the scholar he claimed to be? Francis Neilson.
who, together with Nock, edited the old Freeman, claimed that
Nock was a poseur who used a book of Latin and Greek phrases and their
translations to spike his copy with an air of classical erudition.
I should be able to cast some light on the issue of scholarship, for
Nock was a friend of mine. and Francis Neilson was my collaborator and
mentor for twenty years. Helen Swift Neilson, Nock's patroness for
seven years, was a very dear friend; she was also my adviser when,
with the help of Violetta G. Peterson, I was nursing The American
Journal of Economics and Sociology in-to maturity. Ben Huebsch,
who was the publisher of The Freeman, was a friend whom I saw
every week for about ten years before his death. I was also acquainted
with Suzanne La Follette, Nock's right-hand woman on the magazine.
To understand why Neilson wrote so rancorously about Nock, it is
necessary to know Nock's history. After he was graduated from St.
Stephen's College (now Bard College), Nock attended a theological
seminary and became a priest of the Episcopal Church. He married and
had two sons, both of whom became college teachers and distinguished
scholars. Whether his wife and he separated, I do not know. Nock
served in the clergy in Ohio under a bishop who was noted for his
advocacy of the Single Tax, and there made the acquaintance of leading
Georgists: Tom Johnson, Brand Whitlock, and Newton D. Baker. He also
was an intimate friend of William Jennings Bryan, the famous
presidential candidate, who played a leading role in the later
Progressive Movement and became Secretary of State in the first Wilson
Eventually, Nock left the ministry. I believe that he underwent a
crisis of faith. He became a muckraking journalist and wrote, in an
extremely polished style, for some of the leading magazines of the
Francis Neilson, as a leading British pacifist, fought against Greet
Britain's entry into World War I. When war commenced, he quit his seat
in the Parliament, took his family to the United States, and became an
American citizen. In 1915, before he emigrated, he wrote How
Diplomats Make War and gave the manuscript to Nock to take to Ben
Huebsch, his New York publisher. Nock, according to Huebsch (and
contrary to the inaccurate statements made by others, and by me, did
not collaborate in the work. The book caused a sensation in America.
Neilson's wife did not like the United States. She returned to
England, and they were divorced. Neilson married Helen Swift Morris,
the talented daughter and heiress of Gustavus Swift. She first met
Neilson when he was the leader of the "Young Turks," the
radical wing of the English Liberal Party. She also knew Nock, and
financially assisted The Nation when Nock was connected with
When war ended, Nock asked Helen Neilson to subsidize a new Georgist
weekly that he planned to establish. She agreed enthusiastically. The
two of them broached the subject to Francis Neilson. When he could not
persuade them to drop the idea, he took over the planning. And thus
was born The Freeman, published in the fashion of Addison's
and Steele's Spectator and Tatler. The new
magazine was almost entirely Neilson's conception. It aimed at the
serious readers, and, eventually, it won the allegiance of seven
thousand of them.
The historians of American literature claimed that the old Freeman
was unique because it was "distinguished by good prose and the
Single Tax." Good prose it certainly had, and it was Nock, with
the help of his staff, who saw to that. Celebrated writers, such as
Thomas Mann, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Thorstein Veblen, contributed
excellently-written articles. However, neither Nock nor Neilson was a
Single Taxer. This was also true of Henry George, whom the
encyclopedists dubbed a Single Taxer. George fought against calling
the Single Tax a panacea. The only panacea he knew, he said, was "freedom."
As for Nock and Neilson, they considered themselves Georgists, and
they both held the "panacea mongers" in silent contempt.
What The Freeman presented was the Georgist ethical and
radical-liberal viewpoint, not the Single Tax.
After a while, unfortunately, much friction developed between Nock
and Neilson. One of the reasons for such friction was that Nock
rewrote many of Neilson's articles in Nock's own distinctive style,
causing the readers to assume that "Nock was the Freeman."
Neilson bitterly resented this assumption (the rumor of which soon
reached him). Over and over again, as if he were reciting a litany, he
would rattle off the names of the staff. Van Wyck Brooks, Geroid
Tanquary Robinson, Walter Fuller, Suzanne La Follette, and so on. It
was the lot of them, he maintained, not one or two, who made the
magazine what it was. To the professional journalist, this was
obviously true. The reading public, however, was under the illusion
that Nock (practically alone) edited the magazine.
An additional source of friction was Nock's practice of rewriting
Neilson's editorials, as well as his articles. Neilson had a natural,
graceful style that enabled him to engage in intimate communication
with the reader -- I know, for I copy-edited Neilson's manuscripts for
twenty years. My New York Times rewrite colleagues and I would
consider it unethical to put the stamp of our individual styles on
other people's writings. Nock obviously did not share our views. If
Neilson had not later established his own claim to stylistic honors
(in the essays which, with the devoted collaboration of Phyllis Evans,
he wrote until he was ninety-four), Nock's actions would have to be
characterized as deplorable.
Did Neok do his rewriting to pass off somebody else's work as his
own? Neilson thought so, but he never succeeded in persuading me. I
believe that since Nock considered his style to be the acme of all
styles, he thought all good writing in The Freeman should be
presented in that style. He wanted the magazine to succeed.
Neilson, himself, ungrudgingly paid tribute to Nock as the man who
kept the enterprise going for the four years of its existence
(1920-1924). Suzanne La Follette claimed that Nock's prodding and
encouragement brought out the best in everybody and assured the
continuance of the excellent prose -- even if the prose did suffer
from the sense of sameness.
The differences between Neilson and Neok were exacerbated when
Neilson wrote a sequel to How Diplomats Make War. He called it
The Myth of a Guilty Nation. He sent the manuscript to Nock,
to be published serially in The Freeman. Nock proceeded to
rewrite the book from start to finish in his own style, and then
published it under the nom de plume of "Journeyman." As a
result, the congratulations went to Nock instead of to Neilson, its
Years later, Nock denied that he had had any intentions of robbing
Neilson of credit for his book. He pointed out that How Diplomats
Make War was also published under a nom de plume -"Statesman,"
I believe. But I am at a loss to understand why Nock allowed the
notion to get abroad that he was the author.
Did the quarrel between Neilson and Nock bring about the demise of
The Freeman? My own view is that the magazine died as a result
of a combination of circumstances. Neilson, as the former stage
director of the London Royal Opera, was anxious to take his wife on an
artistic and musical tour of Europe; Nock was anxious to be off to his
beloved Low Countries.
The high cost of publishing The Freeman may also have played
a role in its termination. Helen Neilson told me that the magazine's
deficit was two million dollars. She was prepared to continue
supporting The Freeman, but when she lost a considerable part
of her fortune (to save a friend from bankruptcy), she was unable to
contribute as before. In any case, and for whatever reason, The
Freeman ceased to exist.
With the aid of three ether patronesses, Nock was able to turn out a
series of books much beloved by the cognoscenti, but he was little
able to contribute much to what Neilson used to call "his larder."
Nock also continued to write articles, one of which caused him much
trouble. At the very time of Nazi anti-Semitism, Nock decided to write
a two-part essay about the Jews. I remember that this essay gave me
very great misgivings; and my forebodings were correct. The liberal
weeklies hinted or stated that Nock was an anti-Semite. I did not
believe it then, and I do not believe it now. The outcry against Nock,
however, ended his article-writing career. From that point on, he
concentrated only on books.
It is in his books that one may find the answer to the question
originally asked: was Nock a scholar? In his excellent "rewrites,"
he depended mostly on ether scholars. His biographies of Henry George
and Thomas Jefferson, for instance, were based on the works of Henry
George, Jr., and Charles and Mary Beard, respectively. Nock's Our
Enemy, the State was a fine rewrite of the shorter version of
Franz Oppenheimer's The State. (However, Professor
Oppenheimer, an intimate collaborator of mine, told me that Nock
misunderstood Oppenheimer's views of the State and government.)
When Our Enemy, the State was published, Frank Chodorov (then
the director of the Henry George School) and I had long discussions
about the book. It raised many more questions than it answered, we
thought. Chodorov proposed that we should try to get Nock to spell out
his position in more detail, and to that end we should get him to give
a series of lectures on the subject. Would I persuade Nock to accept?
I told Chodorov that I would introduce him to Nock and depend on
Chodorov to do the persuading.
We called upon Neck, oho succumbed to Chodorov's blandishments. I
wrote the agenda for the lectures and tried to put in all the
questions that had occurred to Chodorov and to me. But we were
profoundly disappointed in Nock. Everything that he said was already
in his book. At the end of the lectures, Chodorov and I looked at each
other in disbelief. Subsequently, we also discovered that Nock
completely failed to refer to the original German version of
Oppenheimer's book, which contained much material that the English
version did not have. Nock professed to read German, but he did not
even bother to read the original Oppenheimer text.
When I narrated this incident to Neilson, his explanation for Nock's
apparent lack of diligence was that Nock was lazy. I could not accept
the explanation. My own guess was that Nock suffered from an illness
that limited his activity. Nock's work on Rabelais, I said, even
though the basic research was done by Catherine Rose Wilson,
sufficiently demonstrated the depths and heights of Nock's own
scholarship. Neilson listened to what I had to say, thought for a
while, and then said frankly: "That Nock I did not know. I should
only speak of Nock the journalist, the Nock I knew." And that was
his policy thereafter.
What were Nock's contributions to social thought? They consisted of
his thesis of the Remnant (which was basically a biblical version of
Vilfrede Pareto's theory of the elites) and his promulgation of
individualist anarchism (a political philosophy that owed much to the
writings of Benjamin Tucker, Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, and Max
Stirner). I never agreed with Nock's anarchistic views, but neither
did I agree with Joseph Dana Miller's dictum that Nock was a
I honor Nock for his co-editorship of The Freeman, for his
journalistic writings, and for his (at times) scholarly books. I also
honor him for having had the courage of his convictions. He had much
to say: of value to the past, present, and future generations. He
earned the right to be heard.