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The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century
The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century
Alan Brinkley
Knopf, 2010
560 pp., $35.00

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George Marsden


Invisible Faith

The Life and work of Henry Luce.

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My suspicion is that by treating Luce's considerable religious interests as just another fascination Brinkley has missed what could have been a poignant major motif in the biography, particularly when juxtaposed with some of the contradictions between Luce's high ideals and the way he lived as one of the rich and the powerful. I realize, of course, that it may seem parochial for me to criticize a fine work of history for failing to do justice to my own specialty. Nonetheless, I think it is arguable that Brinkley, like a lot of fine historians, has almost a blind spot regarding matters of religion and so misses significant themes that could have enriched his already fine narrative.

For example, we are told that Luce's father, Henry W. Luce (Yale '92), became deeply involved with the college Student Volunteer Movement. He then attended Union Theological Seminary in New York for a year but eventually finished his degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. Brinkley says nothing about the possible significance of this transfer to Princeton, the bastion of Presbyterian orthodoxy. More generally, he never thinks to ask what sort of Presbyterians (strict? pietistic? broad?) Luce's parents were or how they (or their son) responded to the great missions controversies that disrupted the Presbyterian Church in the 1920s and '30s.

In 1913, the younger Henry (always known as Harry) was enrolled at age fifteen at Hotchkiss School, a feeder for Yale, which he entered three years later. Regarding all his formative prep and college years, we learn much detail about Harry's ambitions, striving, competitiveness, and journalistic work, but comments on religious matters, which presumably would be sprinkled in correspondence with missionary parents, surface only once in Brinkley's narrative. That is to remark that when he entered Yale, "Harry's own faith was almost certainly stronger than that of most of his classmates, but he usually gave scant evidence of it." Brinkley then quotes Harry's revealing comment that the opening religious gathering at Dwight Hall, Yale's famed evangelical center, made him wonder whether the young men who talked so enthusiastically about Jesus "know of what they talk, or are they only religiously drunk." Such "fervid Xianity," he added, "has completely alienated my friend Brit Hadden from its holy halls." One can learn from other sources that Harry remained active in Dwight Hall and even preached there on occasion, but in Brinkley's account this quotation is the first and last we are told of Harry's religious development, interests, or concerns from his teens until his mid-thirties. The next mention of religion pops up when, in 1934, he has fallen desperately in love and is determined to marry the extraordinary writer Clare Boothe Brokaw; he is quoted as wondering, in a list of considerations, whether he has the "Christian right" to divorce his first wife (who is the mother of his two sons). It seems as though there must be a fascinating story of a religious journey and even personal agonizing that is not being told. It appears as though Brinkley has little interest in religious matters and so chooses to regard them as essentially private concerns (even in a biography) and something like a hobby.

Brinkley nonetheless spins a fascinating tale of young Harry's spectacular rise to success. Central to that story through all the school years is Harry's friend and sometimes rival Brit Hadden (he who was alienated from Dwight Hall). The two of them took over the Yale Daily News during the patriotic days following World War I. Then, in 1923, the 24-year-old Yalies audaciously launched Time as a weekly news magazine. Hadden was the editor in chief and Luce the business manager. Time was fascinated by the rich and powerful and proved to play an important role in helping to standardize the culture, especially for the better educated and well- to-do. Almost immediately it was a great success. When Hadden died suddenly in 1929 (he effectively drank himself to death), Luce took over the editorship and built an empire, adding Fortune and Life in the 1930s.

The story of Luce in his prime during the mid-decades of the century is that of a public figure of considerable political interests and influence, and of a private life often in turmoil. Luce was a moderate Republican who nonetheless voted for Al Smith and probably for Lyndon Johnson. He was especially close to Eisenhower and very much liked Jack Kennedy, a family friend. Luce was always relatively progressive on matters of race (one wonders if religious motives were involved). He was renowned for his support of Nationalist China and of General and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. He was an ardent Cold Warrior but did not like populists such as Senator Joseph McCarthy. Luce regarded his faith in America's mission and destiny as a matter of principle higher than mere patriotism.

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