Harry Hopkins

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Henry H. Adams, a former professor of English, has written a four-volume history of World War II, and this biography reflects the background knowledge which that task provided. The material on Hopkins comes mainly from the Hopkins papers on microfilm at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, and Adams’ extensive research makes it unlikely that more new information about Hopkins’ life and work will be forthcoming. After the preliminaries, Averell Harriman’s Foreword, and a Prologue built around Hopkins’ resignation from the Cabinet in August, 1940, Adams’ account is basically chronological, and divided into two sections, the shorter dealing with Hopkins’ prewar career and the longer with his last crucial services. The proportions show the author’s assessment of the relative importance of the two periods in his subject’s life.

Authors are not responsible for publisher’s blurbs, but somebody should be held to account for a wrapper which reads on the front under the title, “The life story of the man behind FDR, the New Deal, and Allied strategy in World War II.” Hopkins was tremendously important, as Adams’ whole account proves, but that importance is obscured, not shown, by hyperbole. Better testimony is Harriman’s opening in his Foreword to Adams’ biography: “If Sir Winston Churchill had been asked which two Americans, other than President Roosevelt, had done the most to defeat Hitler, he would have unhesitatingly replied, ’Among the military, General Marshall, and among the civilians, Harry Hopkins.’” What kind of man could evoke such a tribute?

Hopkins’ beginnings were ordinary: an Iowa birth and for the most part youth, a father who was a harness maker and salesman, and a mother who was a former schoolteacher intent on the education of her children. He attended Grinnell College and achieved no high record of scholarship, but developed an interest in history and politics, and benefited from the influence of a professor who taught “Applied Christianity.” It was apparently this professor who steered Hopkins into his first career by recommending him for a counselor’s post at a New Jersey summer camp for poor boys. Adams suggests that Hopkins took the offer because it would give him a chance to see the East; he did stop on the way—it was 1912—to see the Republican Convention in Chicago and the Democratic Convention in Baltimore.

Throughout this early account, Adams is sparse with analysis and explanation; the absence of documentation is almost certainly the reason. Yet some speculation occurs: not merely one professor, but the whole “Progressive” idea, and the growing importance of social work, might well turn an Iowa boy of 1912 in that direction. At any rate, as Adams tells it, the experience of the summer camp was Hopkins’ introduction to urban poverty and to urban ethnicity—the boys came from New York slums. Hopkins went from summer camp to a New York settlement house, and from there to the world of professional social work in the metropolis.

Several things are implied, though not stated, in Adams’ account of Hopkins’ career from 1912 to the Depression. He worked for the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, for the city government, for the Tuberculosis Association, for the Red Cross—a variety of mostly private agencies and organizations. He became an organizer, executive, and expediter, rather than a case worker. He developed a reputation for getting things done, but in his own way, not always by the rules. And in the “prosperity” of the 1920’s he was never out of contact with those who did not share the prosperity. Not, Adams’ account makes clear, that he was poor or monkish. Hopkins liked the company of the rich; he liked to live well. The point, rather, though Adams does not express it, is that Hopkins was never able to accept the prosperity as being the prerogative only of the rich.

Hopkins’ second career began during the Depression, when Roosevelt, as Governor of New York, put Hopkins in charge of a temporary relief project which provided work for the poor. When Roosevelt went to Washington, in the midst of all the emergencies of the...

(The entire section is 1708 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Choice. XIV, October, 1977, p. 1118.

Christian Century. XCIV, November 2, 1977, p. 1010.

New Leader. LX, July 4, 1977, p. 18.

New Republic. CLXXVII, September 24, 1977, p. 29.