Sowell Searching

REVIEW: ‘Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell’

• May 30, 2021 4:58 am


Most celebrity gossip doesn’t live up to the hype. But there are a handful of people who have lived such colorful and improbable lives that, when presented with an absurd story about them, the best thing to do is assume it’s true.

Did Bill Murray crash a White House press briefing to talk about the Chicago Cubs? Of course he did. Did Nicolas Cage really name his son Kal-El? Absolutely. Did Thomas Sowell once rent a helicopter with Steven Pinker to go on a "photo safari" of the San Francisco Bay Area? You’d better believe it.

Sowell, the noted economist and social thinker, has had quite the career. He grew up poor in Harlem, dropped out of high school, and tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He did a stint in the Marines, graduated from Harvard, and went on to become one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals. And that only brings us through the introduction of Jason Riley’s Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell.

Riley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, has done an admirable job distilling Sowell’s 90 years, 30-odd books, and countless columns into a single volume. Maverick will delight Sowell’s biggest fans and help introduce new generations to the man and his work.

At the outset, Riley makes clear that the book is "a treatment of Sowell’s ideas" and not a traditional biography. But it quickly becomes apparent that Sowell’s thought is shaped by real-world experience more than anything else. As a result, where other intellectual biographies veer into philosophical tangent, Maverick remains firmly grounded in the details of its subject’s life.

Consider Riley’s account of Sowell’s intellectual development. Sowell first discovered Marx in a set of used encyclopedias and became a Marxist while working as a Western Union messenger. Delivering telegrams in wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods before returning to Harlem convinced him of the evils of an economic system that breeds inequality.

Sowell remained a Marxist while studying at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago, where he earned a Ph.D. under Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. He only rejected socialism after spending the summer of 1960 working for the U.S. Department of Labor, where "seeing government at work from the inside" caused his socialism to "erode rapidly."

Of course, one assumes that the years spent studying under Friedman and Hayek had something to do with Sowell’s intellectual conversion. And Riley does an excellent job explaining what Sowell learned from his mentors in Chicago. But it’s ultimately experience, not theory, that informed all of Sowell’s major intellectual turns and contributions.

It was Sowell’s experience with the campus radicalism of the 1970s that caused him to leave academia for Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he remains a senior fellow. It was his experience as a father that led him to conduct path-breaking research into late-talking children. And it was his negative experience with affirmative action that caused him to shift his focus from economics to social theory, and articulate criticisms of the civil rights movement and contemporary liberalism.

These criticisms earned Sowell the fame—and infamy—he enjoys to this day. In Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? (1984), Sowell takes aim at landmark civil rights victories like school integration, which "has produced neither the education nor the social miracles once expected."

According to Sowell, "political activity and political success have been neither necessary nor sufficient for economic advancement" of particular racial or ethnic groups. Having come to that conclusion, he excoriates civil rights leaders for framing economic problems as political problems in order to make headlines and raise money. "Groups that have the skills for other things seldom concentrate in politics," Sowell writes.

Riley makes it clear up front that he doesn’t intend to "psychoanalyze [Sowell] or unpack his personal life in any greater detail than is necessary to illuminate his scholarship." This is an understandable bit of restraint, but ultimately a bit of a disappointment. Reading about the notoriously reclusive curmudgeon, one can’t help but want Riley to put Sowell on the couch for a bit.

This points to a broader problem with the state of intellectual biography today. It’s tempting to psychoanalyze figures like Sowell at the end of their careers, when they’ve written and lived so publicly for so much of their lives. Even biographers who resist this temptation have to omit or ignore crucial ideas in intellectual biographies of storied figures because, to quote Saul Bellow, "there is simply too much to think about."

The solution is not longer biographies but contemporaneous biographies. Sowell has scores of acolytes and is admired by many of his fellow intellectuals. Had any of them written a contemporary biography of Sowell, they wouldn’t have faced the burden of his entire career. They likely could have gained greater access to him. And in doing so, they would have been able to offer greater insight into the thinker before the weeds of legend grew too thick.

John Adams’s biographer David McCullough once expressed his regret that John Quincy Adams had not chronicled his father’s life. Hearing McCullough’s lament inspired George W. Bush to write 41: A Portrait of My Father. The result was a book that no one else could have written, from a man who understood his subject better than anyone else possibly could.

Riley can claim a closer connection to Sowell than most readers, having met and interviewed him multiple times. And he does a fine job contextualizing Sowell among 20th century conservative intellectuals like Allan Bloom, Irving Kristol, and Walter E. Williams. But he is still, proudly, one of many who count Sowell as a teacher. That inescapable fact lends itself to a biographical perspective that is both illuminating and limiting.

Thomas Sowell cleared away the intellectual brush of Marxism in order to restore the possibility of a reasonable and rigorous social science. In Maverick, Riley clears the brush of notoriety in order to stoke interest in one of the 20th century’s great thinkers, whose work is indispensable but whose sheer reputation and voluminous output may intimidate curious readers. Maverick hardly aims to be the definitive or final word on Sowell’s thought, but it is an excellent place to start.

Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell
by Jason Riley
Basic Books, 304 pp., $30

Published under: Book reviews