The announcement of their wedding was that of a classically trained musician to an academic economist and political provocateur. So naturally, when you fast forward to the end of the long lives that Helen and Scott Nearing made for themselves and view their accomplishments, you find…farming?
Yes, farming. Though that’s certainly not how things began. Scott Nearing’s life followed an arc extending from academic, to social activist, to political commentator, to eccentric lifestyle coach.
It was Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s statement that she had been inspired by the Nearings when she settled on the island of North Haven, Maine, which brought them to mind so long after they had died. After all these years, how do their lives look?
Born in 1883, Scott Nearing came out of Pennsylvania coal country from a well-to-do family. Winning a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, he demonstrated what a lifelong trait of boundless energy by attending both Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, and landing a degree in economics.
His career as an agitator got started while volunteering for the Child Labor Commission of Philadelphia. Its modest goals were to establish the nine-hour workday for child laborers, limit the work week to 52 hours and require children to attend school at least one-half day per week.
He also attained a position as an associate professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he had earned his Ph.D. in 1909. In 1915, the University of Pennsylvania fired Nearing, however, for his “radical” views on child labor. His beliefs endangered his impressionable followers.
“I do not believe in muzzling any member of the faculty,” the University provost said at the time. “I do believe, however, that no man may go too far.”
Though the American Association of University Professors would later decline to take up Nearing’s cause, his firing — and subsequent student petitions for his reinstatement — was a milestone in the development of the concept of academic tenure and academic freedom.
Soon after his dismissal, Nearing won a position with the University of Toledo in its school of social sciences. It didn’t last long, however; the problem now was his opposition to U.S. entry into World War I. In November of 1917, seven months after the United States formally entered the war, Nearing spoke out against the war to a group in Duluth. An FBI stenographer recorded his speech and he was arrested for sedition. Declining to be associated with his views, the university dismissed him.
But this second dismissal did nothing to squelch his opinions. Nearing went on to publish a pamphlet entitled, The Great Madness: A Victory for the American Plutocracy, in which he described war in economic terms. A “big business murder game,” he called it. It was the basis for his prosecution under the Espionage Act.
Though the prosecution failed and he was cleared of the charges, Nearing was now untouchable in academia. He ran a quixotic campaign as a socialist against New York Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, and began a decade long dalliance with socialism and then communism. He toured the United States debating Clarence Darrow on the issue of democracy’s ability to reform mankind.
Must We Starve?
In 1930, he quit the Communist party, though he remained a lifelong socialist. Issues of inequality were now uppermost in his writings as the nation slogged through the Great Depression. The title of a 1932 book asked, Must We Starve? Nearing’s answer? Yes, unless the country undertook dramatic economic reform that more fairly divided the profits of a man’s labor between property owners and laborers. 1932 was also the year Nearing bought a 65-acre farm in Jamaica, Vt., and began his famous back-to-the-land experiment.
Though he didn’t exactly surrender his podium to discuss world affairs, he certainly retreated, choosing to pursue an ascetic life building a farm from the ground up and drawing what he needed from the land.
Scott Nearing was not without his personal problems. Along the way, in 1908, he had married fellow academic Nellie Seeds. Together they had two sons.
The Nearings coauthored a number of publications, including in 1923 writing an introduction to help with sales for labor activist Ralph Chaplin’s Bars and Shadows: The Prison Poems. Unlike Nearing, Chaplin, who authored the lyrics to the labor standard Solidarity Forever, had been convicted under the Espionage Act for speaking out against World War I and was serving time in Leavenworth Penitentiary.
The Nearings’ marriage, however, was already on the rocks by that point. They had separated by 1920, and one son went on to renounce the Nearing name. Neither son was close to his father. Nellie Seeds did not believe in divorce, and the Nearings stayed married until 1946, when Nellie Seeds died.
In Search of the Good Life
In 1928, however, Scott Nearing met Helen Knothe, 21 years younger than he and training as a concert violinist. They became romantically involved, and Helen set up house with Nearing in 1932 in Vermont. Producing maple syrup and growing their own food, Scott and Helen set about creating their own version of paradise in Vermont.
In this semi-seclusion, Nearing solidified his views on economic inequality, socialism and pacifism. When the United States deployed the nuclear bombs at the end of World War II, he grew even more distant from politics, and his appreciation for the simplicity of farm life grew. In 1952, after 20 years in Vermont, the Nearings left. The encroachment from the ski industry troubled them. The value of their $4,500 land investment had increased to $6 million, and the Nearings donated the property to the Town of Winhall, Vt.
Married since 1947 after Nellie Seeds’ death, the Nearings moved to Brooksville, Maine, and started over building their Forest Farm. That would be their last move. In 1954, the Nearings published their most popular book: Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. It recounted the principles that had guided them in their move to the country.
The book was not wildly popular, at first, but it gradually found a greater audience, and its themes resonated with young people fed up with politics in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It was reissued in 1970. You can watch Scott discussing The Good Life here.
Later critics would point out that the Nearings had the benefit of sizable trust funds to cushion them against failure. Nevertheless, their legacy lives on at the Good Life Center in Brooksville.
Both Nearings have died, Scott in 1983 and Helen in 1995. By the end, it seems almost impossible to believe Scott Nearing generated the controversy he did. Newspaper accounts and interviews of the time treated him like an anachronism, his battles behind him. However, to the end Scott Nearing believed that the issues he wrote about, economic inequality in particular, were central to the future of mankind.
For lots more information on Scott Nearing, visit here.
This story about Scott Nearing was updated in 2021.