James Wallace of Macalester by Edwin Kagin: a review

An oddly-balanced biography of Macalester College’s most significant president. The book gives a surprising amount of attention to his courtship and advanced education–they were oddly intermixed in ways you really need to read to believe–then devotes many chapters to the first five years of his presidency. After all that detail, the last four decades of his life are given fairly light, but probably adequate, treatment.

The strength of the book is its fascinating portrait of the early years of a small college. We see buildings under construction, we sit in on debates about whether to permit women students, we watch faculty get hired (and fired), we experience a neighborhood growing around the campus, we grow frustrated as the finances of the school devolve from difficult to grim. Then we follow newly-elected Macalester president Wallace as he slogs through a half-decade of budgets and fundraising–begging, really–during the 1890s recession. Finally things right themselves as the new century begins. This section of the book is extremely well-done, and worth reading for anyone interested in the beginnings of educational institutions. While the details are specific to this institution, the general pattern, I suspect, is common.

The text shows enough flashes of both anger and wit to reveal James Wallace as an interesting character. Reason and balance don’t seem to have been his normal mode. That he was a fine teacher and effective administrator are amply demonstrated; so, too, are the strength of his character and the loyalty of his friends and family.

This book is most likely to appeal to Macalester alumni, or to specialists in Minnesota education. It’s a well-done, but unexceptional, portrait. One supposes that Doubleday’s decision to publish it owed more to DeWitt Wallace’s Readers Digest influence than James Wallace’s importance.

Oh, yes. This book pins the cow incident on an early Mac student, not on DeWitt. Most of my readers will likely understand.


This review was originally published on LibraryThing.