THIS LATEST WORK by the author of the influential The End of Economic Man is autobiographical, though only peripherally so. Its energies are directed almost entirely outward, as Drucker moves from the '20s Vienna of his youth, to Depression-era America, then through World War II and the postwar years, producing along the way a gallery of extraordinary portraits.

The famous are here (Freud, Henry Luce, John L. Lewis, to name a few) as well as the infamous (a Nazi war criminal), and a fair number of wholly obscure principals-boyhood teachers, relatives, and merchants, all of them captivatingly rendered. And all are the beneficiaries, for better or worse, of Drucker's unerring eye for psychological detail, his remorseless curiosity, and his imaginative sympathy.The long-dead merchants, teachers, and friends who compose the best of the portraits grow life-sized under his intense scrutiny, for he knows well how t odeduce much from little and is abetted by his own hoarder's instinct for the paradoxical, the tell-tale, and the strange.

But it is not character portraiture alone that distinguishes Drucker's book. For he has evoked here as well eras and places-not a few of which will go down hard with those chronically disposed to a belief that America is teetering on the brink of fascism, that constituency for whom it is always two minutes to midnight for American democracy, and to whom the only credible interpretations of American character, history and political motives are the ones that are the blackest. The America that Drucker evokes in the second half of the book is of a generous and positive society. Floawed as it may be, its character, forged on the American dream of egalitarianism and opportunity, stands in dramatic distinction to the Old World society of Europe. Even crushed by the misery of the Depression, Drucker points out, the prevailing mood in America was one of generosity: in need, in the face of calamity, the impulse of Americans was to share, to help one another-a commitment to mutual aid which had no parallel in Europe where the Depression produced only suspicion and fear.

Drucker's, to be sure, was a comparatively privileged path in the America of the '30s, first as an American adviser to a number of British financial institutions and also as an American correspondent for several British and Scots newspapers. In the following years he came to know Henry Luce, and the workings of his vastly complex Time-Life-Fortune empire, along with a host of some of the better-known figures of 20th-century America.

In a richly discursive section on Luce, Drucker ascribes his character to his background as a missionary's son in China. He conjectures that Luce, managin ghuman relations and his magazine empire like a Chinese ruler who remains remote from the scene of action and takes no direct part, organized competing networks and countervailing officials to make sure that no one became a threat. But, compelling as they almost always are-even when, as in the portrait of Freud, they tend to the reductive-it is not Drucker's conclusions that matter in the end, so much as his ear for the eccentric, the intimately revealing.

In the middle portion of Drucker's travels-his English period, as it were-one comes to a series of sketches which stand out precisely for this quality. One is of the aged Ernest Freedberg whose banking firm employed Drucker, as well as a host of other, distinctly curious personalities (among them an aging company courtesan who came "with the job," as a newly named partner, uninterested in her favors, discovered to his woe). They are memorable, all of them-particularly Freedberg and his friend Uncle Henry, whose practical wisdom on merchants and merchandising stands up to anything served up by the Harvard School of Business, and does so with more verve.

In short, Drucker's book appears in a stroke to have restored the art of the memoir and of the essay. It will doubtless be a while before its like comes round again.