In 1997, Free Inquiry was fortunate to have Nat Hentoff join its first group of regular columnists. They represented widely disparate views but were united in their commitment to secular humanism. Hentoff was no different. Though an avowed secular humanist, he was personally opposed to abortion, attacked political correctness, and criticized advocacy groups that he felt sometimes tried to censor their opponents. His views often riled many of his fellow humanists.
Hentoff was born into an atmosphere of lively debate. He was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, and in his childhood neighborhood in his native Boston he was surrounded by Socialists, anarchists, Communists, and more. He was a student at Boston Latin, the oldest public school in the United States.
Early on, he explored what it felt like to express a different view from his surrounding community. He relates that on Yom Kippur when he was twelve, he sat on the porch of his house (which was near a synagogue) and ate a salami sandwich in full view of passersby. “I wanted to know what it felt like to be an outcast,” he wrote in a memoir.
As an adult, Hentoff became a journalist, social commentator, and jazz critic. He wrote for the Village Voice for fifty years and also contributed to the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and dozens of other publications. He wrote more than thirty-five books—fiction for adults and young adults and nonfiction on civil liberties, education, and other subjects. He also wrote for Downbeat magazine. A jazz aficionado, Hentoff frequented nightclubs and became an expert on the art form and its performers.
Hentoff’s columns for Free Inquiry focused on the Constitution and civil liberties, education, abortion, end-of-life issues, genocide, and many other subjects. He berated both former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama during their terms, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, for what he perceived as their affronts to the Constitution. He vigorously explored ways to improve education for public-school students. In addition to his columns, he also contributed a few feature-length articles. All told, Hentoff’s writing appeared in more than fifty issues of Free Inquiry.
He seemingly eschewed computers, always submitting typewritten manuscripts replete with scratch-outs and handwritten insertions. Communication was always by phone or fax. One day, however, he revealed that he had an e-mail account when he had to explore alternative ways to communicate during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (Greenwich Village, where Hentoff lived, coped with power failures and flooding during that storm).
To the end, Hentoff remained involved and engaged. In recent years, writing a column was becoming more difficult for him. On at least one occasion, though, the health issue hampering his writing could have been that of a much younger person: he was having difficulty typing because he had hurt his hand while walking his new puppy.
Hentoff’s final column, “Mounting Suspension of Students Can Lead to Prison for Many,” appeared in the February/March 2014 issue. Free Inquiry routinely sends authors two complimentary copies of issues in which their articles appear. Hentoff regularly asked for six, “so his children could see that he amounted to something.” It seems that he did.