THERE IS no more appealing task for a biographer than to examine a subject who has been cloaked in stereotype, to peel away the layers of popular imagery and reveal the genuine purpose and meaning of the life.

Despite such probing works as Townsend Hoopes' The Devil and John Foster Dulles, the man who served Dwight Eisenhower--robustly and controversially--as secretary of state for over six years has remained something of an enigma. A principal reason for this is that no biographer has heretofore attempted to treat the entire life of John Foster Dulles in a full- scale work.

Ronald W. Pruessen, associate professor of history at the University of Toronto, has sought to remedy this situation. The first volume of a contemplated two-volume assessment, John Foster Dulles: The Road to Power carries its protagonist to the threshold of appointment to the State Department in 1952.

The early life could not have been better designed for a future secretary of state. Dulles was born in 1888 at the Washington home of his maternal grandfather, John Watson Foster, whom Benjamin Harrison appointed to lead the State Department in 1892. Although the family lived in upstate New York, the boy enjoyed an early exposure to Washington on frequent visits; at the age of 4, he attended the White House birthday party of the president's grandson.

The young Dulles went to Princeton in the footsteps of his father, Allen Macy Dulles, a well-traveled Presbyterian minister who had earned a moderately liberal reputation through his writings. But on graduation in 1908, he turned aside the family expectation that he too would enter the ministry: "I think I could make a greater contribution as a Christian lawyer and a Christian layman than I would as a Christian minister."

Perhaps more to the point, he had been bitten by the diplomatic bug. Dulles had accompanied his grandfather to the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907 as a secretary-clerk. After Princeton, he enrolled for a year at the Sorbonne and then at George Washington Law School, resolving to emulate Secretary Foster by interweaving a career in international law with a career in statecraft.

Dulles' first job in 1911 at Sullivan and Cromwell, the eminent New York law firm where he spent most of his life, coincided with the great surge of Americans into international trade and finance. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson appointed Robert Lansing, Dulles' uncle by marriage, as secretary of state. The outbreak of war brought the young lawyer to the War Trade Board in Washington and later to the Paris Peace Conference as a legal adviser involved in substantial negotiation. Pruessen believes that the experience left Dulles with the Wilsonian tendency of concealing basic contentment with existing global order under a shield of rousing rhetoric.

Back in New York as a Sullivan and Cromwell partner, Dulles arranged foreign trade loans and performed numerous services both in America and abroad for a cross-section of the nation's largest banks and corporations. He was profiled by Fortune in 1931 as one of the young lions of the American bar, but by then he had already outgrown the confines of a Wall Street practice. His frequent speeches and writings, while not notably profound, evidenced a serious mind groping for conceptual explanations of international problems. John Maynard Keynes called an early Dulles criticism of The Economic Consequences of the Peace "the first serious and responsible criticism with which I had had to deal."

He was concerned in the 1920s primarily with the influence of economic relations on world order. This broadened in the 1930s to include an interest in the problem of devising political means to accommodate change. "We forget that the changes which we recognize to be inevitable over a hundred years must occur sometime," Dulles wrote in War, Peace and Change (1939). "They may occur gradually, year by year, or else, if they are allowed to occur infrequently, then when they come they will be so momentous as to cause a great shock."

The great shock came in September 1939. The war years found Dulles increasingly involved in church affairs and speaking in a new vernacular. "He made global reform a religious, as well as an ethical imperative," Pruessen writes. "His writings took on a lofty tone as they were worked through the routines of his Commission on a Just and Durable Peace. Peace and prosperity became crucial temporal goals in a divinely ordained scheme for mankind. Christ's words and the Christian tradition, which put emphasis on caring and unselfishness, were used to buttress arguments that had been made in other ways in other years."

From 1940 through 1952, Dulles was a secretary of state-in-waiting. Thomas Dewey rarely spoke on foreign affairs without consulting him or using one of his drafts. Dulles began to branch out beyond the Northeast to meet journalists and Republican leaders around the country; he assembled his own group of foreign policy advisers. During the war, he served as a bridge between the party factions that were the vestige of the prewar conflict between isolationism and internationalism; he kept in careful touch not only with Dewey but also with Willkie, Stassen, Taft and other potential Republican presidents.

In the postwar years, Dulles was a symbol of bipartisan unity behind American foreign policy. He served as counsel and negotiator for Democratic secretaries of state even while positioning himself for his own appointment to Foggy Bottom in 1948. The disappointment of Dewey's defeat by Truman was little eased by Dulles' selection by Dewey to fill a Senate vacancy from New York in 1949; Dulles was defeated for election by Herbert Lehman in November. Dulles continued to provide counsel to the Democratic administration, traveling to Japan to negotiate the peace treaty of 1951. Confident of the outcome of the 1952 presidential election, he refused Truman's invitation to become ambassador to Japan.

Pruessen provides a prudent and balanced assessment of Dulles on the eve. He credits his subject with a breadth of experience as lawyer, diplomat, financial adviser, churchman, thinker and writer, and an increasingly subtle awareness of the underlying currents of international relations. He criticizes Dulles' attention to symptoms rather than cures and his inordinate emphasis on economic relations in explaining international disputes, however laced his rhetoric was with the language of religion, intellectual liberty, and disarmament. Dulles emerges here as a more complex figure than we have known before, a shrewd combination of economic royalist and searching analyst, Christian idealist and political operator, melodramatic orator and thoughtful diplomat.

The author has made thorough and judicious use of the Dulles papers at Princeton. He is especially skillful in establishing the historical context in which Dulles developed and acted. The book suffers from certain flaws of structure and style, however, that may limit its readership. Despite its excellences in conveying the evolution of Dulles' intellectual and professional life, the book makes minimal effort to explain the wellsprings of his personality or indeed to cover aspects of his life not directly related to his career at all. Janet Avery Dulles, his wife of 47 years, is mentioned twice. We know enough about the inextricable links between the public and private lives of our leaders, the impact of emotional experience on behavior and ideology, to know that such an arbitrary choice of terrain impedes a thorough explanation of Dulles. It also prevents the book from serving as a full biography.

There is also a problem of length. Repetitious excerpts from speeches and articles are reprinted throughout the text. Many of Pruessen's conclusions, cogent as they are, occur over and over agin. Even the most intrepid reader will find difficulty in navigating these 509 pages to which the author brings little narrative drive or pace.

The book is peppered with sentences that may discourage all but the most motivated reader. For instance, on the problem Dulles' reputation presents to the historian: "How much should its sharply etched components be allowed to predetermine evolving analysis?" Others state the obvious: "The way he saw the world, in particular--the kinds of problems he identified and the kinds of concerns that led him to identify them--had been shaped by a lifetime of experiences." And then there are the self-conscious hallmarks of the graduate dissertation: "As the following chapter will more fully indicate . . ." and "As will be shown . . ." Literary style cannot obscure banality, of course, but neglecting to motivate the reader can prevent sound conclusions from reaching a wide audience.

There are obvious parallels between the early 1980s and the early 1950s. Both periods found a president and secretary of state determined to strengthen America's world position through new strategic relationships, changed rhetoric, renewed attention to national defense and reconsideration of strategic doctrines. Pruessen thus has a splendid opportunity to present John Foster Dulles as secretary of state to a new generation that can benefit from the lessons of his experience.