American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace

American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace

By John C. Culver and John Hyde
New York: Norton, 2000. Hardback xi+608 pages.

Few figures in modern American public life have been more influential or enigmatic than Henry A, Wallace, New Deal Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President of he United States during World War II.

On the one hand, Wallace was as down, to-earth as the cornfields of his native Iowa. A brilliant agricultural scientist, he developed a highly successful hybrid corn-seed. As the youngest member of Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet in the 19305, he engineered agrarian policies, price supports, and the rest of it, which revolutionized the lives of American farmers for the better.

In the early years of the New Deal, the Department of Agriculture was the largest, most innovative, and most exciting branch of government. Wallace, its pleasingly rumpled, affable, and energetic Secretary, epitomized the New Deal spirit of liberal but pragmatic reform at its best. He seemed to be everywhere, speaking across the country, talking with plain dirt fanners in their fields, and working late hours in his office developing new programs for their benefit.

During the war years, Wallace traveled widely, from Latin America to Central Asia, always delighting ordinary people with his informality and his eagerness to chat with the local fanners about soils and seeds. On the platform and in books and articles he articulated an idealistic, "one world" vision of the postwar years that expounded on basic themes of human brotherhood and the twentieth century as "the century of the common man."

Yet the vegetarian and teetotaling Iowan was also often perceived as a "mystic" who had somehow strayed into the uncongenial corridors of power, given from time to time to strange enthusiasms and "impractical" dreams. Powerful forces mistrusted him and determined to curb his influence. In 1944 he was dropped as vice presidential candidate in favor of Harry S. Truman. Wallace reappeared in 1948 in a typically quixotic bid for the presidency as standard-bearer of the new Progressive Party, which sought to recover the idealism of the early New Deal and to find an alternative to the Cold War; no doubt naive about communism, it was crushed amid the harsh passions of that "War."

How can we understand a statesman as puzzlingly many-sided as this? One important clue could lie in Theosophy, Wallace was seriously involved in Theosophy and related spiritual movements in the years before his going to Washington in 1933, and seems always to have been within the orbit of their influence. He carried on a long correspondence with the Irish poet, mystic, agricultural reformer, and independent Theosophist George Russell (“A.E,"), took correspondence courses in Theosophy from the Temple of the People in Halcyon, California, was active in the Liberal Catholic Church in Des Moines between 1925 and 1929, and was a member of the Theosophical Society in America from 1925 to 1935. From the late 1920s to 1935 he had a much publicized and criticized relationship with the Russian artist, idealist, and mystic Nicholas Roerich. In all of this, several basic Theosophical ideas emerge as important both to Wallace's inner life and, on the profoundest level, his political life: the oneness of spirituality and science, world progress as spiritual reality, and the ideal of unity out of diversity. (See my article, "Henry A. Wallace as Theosophist," Quest, February 1997, 14-15.)

This new biography of Wallace is in many ways the best to date, particularly in respect to the subject's political life. It is eminently sympathetic and extensively researched, and its authors-one a fanner Democratic congressman and senator from Iowa, the other a political reporter clearly know the political territory. American Dreamer is, however, disappointing in its treatment of Wallace's Theosophy and therefore, in my view, fails fully to illumine the deep spiritual impulses that gave coherence to the man as a whole,

The facts about Theosophy and Wallace are mostly there, though the authors regrettably seem unaware of two articles by Mark L Kleinman (cited in mine) which treat Wallace's spirituality fully and perceptively; and although the authors of this book state, "It is unclear whether Wallace ever formally joined the Theosophical Society" (78), documentation of his membership can be found in the archives of the Theosophical Society in America in Wheaton, Illinois, They gratuitously speak of H. P. Blavatsky as "one part philosopher and-two parts fraud" (p. 80), an unsubstantiated characterization that might better have been applied to some of the political figures with whom Wallace had to work.

For background infonuatiou on Theosophy and Liberal Catholicism, Culver and Hyde unfortunately rely on Charles Braden's 1949 book, These Also Believe. Though then a pioneering study of alternative religious traditions, this work is by now very dated and moreover sometimes assumes the condescending manner characteristic of such writing at the time, but long since left behind by the best scholars.

Culver and Hyde seem in fact rather uninterested in Wallace's spiritual quests, if not slightly embarrassed by them; one gets a feeling of their getting through this part of the writing as quickly as possible. Had they consulted such distinguished recent authorities on the role of alternative spirituality in American life as Laurence Moore, Catherine Albanese, or Mary Bednarowski, they might have found a perspective by which Wallace could be placed in a rich and fruitful tradition of interaction between alternative religion, social idealism, and effective policy change, beginning with the mid-nineteenth century connection of Spiritualism with abolitionism and early feminism, and the Theosophy of such reformers as Katherine Tingley or, overseas, Annie Besant.