Reviewed by Franklin Foer
The New Republic
Rhetorical restraint was not Teddy Roosevelt's forte. His occasional fulminations against the intelligentsia could sound like vivid twists on the most inane populism. He called academics "logical vegetarians" and "sublimated sweetbreads." But when Roosevelt wasn't damning effeminate, cosmopolitan mollycoddle, he could be downright effete. If Woodrow Wilson ranks as our most academic president, Teddy Roosevelt was perhaps, despite his efforts to brand himself as a warrior, our most intellectual commander-in-chief.
Take his choice of a post-presidential career. After leaving office, he decamped to a little reform-minded magazine based out of Manhattan called The Outlook, taking his place on the masthead as a "contributing editor." From its earnest pages, Roosevelt did not just comment on current events, although he did do that in his graphomaniacal way. He also wrote about cubist painting at the Armory Show (George Bellows was closer to his taste) and about his theological struggles, or as he titled an essay, "The Search for Truth in a Reverent Spirit". He reviewed books -- which, among other things, allowed him to chew over Henri Bergson and Walter Lippmann -- and expanded his gaze to encompass the literary scene. His piece "Dante in the Bowery" chided contemporary literature for failing to mine modern life's pungent imagery. As Edmund Morris puts it in the final installment of his biographical cycle, the former president had made a rather brave decision to "live off his pen."
Above all, Roosevelt fancied himself a historian, and his voluminous output makes Douglas Brinkley and other prolific present-day practitioners look like victims of writer's block. He published four volumes on the history of the American west, and a less substantial narrative of New York City. He wrote biographies of Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Hart Benton -- as well as a naval history of the War of 1812 that is still highly regarded, despite its time-bound assumptions. (When his collected works were first published in 1900, with nearly twenty years of logorrhea still to come, they totaled 15 volumes.) If we read his letters, we begin to see that his derision of the academy was tinged with envy. In 1901, just after he assumed the presidency, he confided to one correspondent, "Do you know what I should really like to do? I should like to get some position in a college where I could give lectures on United States history to graduates, and at the same time start to write a history of the United States."
It has fallen to a present-day marketing consultant (and lifelong TR devotee) named Daniel Ruddy to bring the second-half of this reverie to fruition. He has culled the collected works of the old Bull Moose, as well as his letters, and attempted to repackage Roosevelt's writings as a coherent history. Ruddy has stitched together riffs on everything from the abolitionists to Martin Van Buren to William Randolph Hearst. There are insights to be gained from reading Roosevelt in this way -- principally into his political assumptions and sense of self. Unfortunately, Ruddy has arrayed this material in a repetitive and somewhat arbitrary manner that will unfairly injure Roosevelt's reputation as a historian. Instead of rendering Roosevelt as a skilled scholar, Ruddy has drawn the portrait of an insufferable dilettante.
Ruddy's volume begins with a chapter -- "History as Literature" -- consisting mostly of compiled quotes from TR's personal correspondence. It is a rambling mess, veering from anecdotes about hunting parties with snooty aristocrats ("as flat as stale champagne") to boasts about his oeuvre ("rather a formidable list") to off-handed slams of Leo Tolstoy ("a sexual degenerate"), Henry James ("the little emasculated mass of inanity"), and Rudyard Kipling ("an unbred little fellow"). A single (only slightly atypical) page splices together sentences gathered from thirteen different sources -- letters, books, and speeches written over the course of decades -- presented as if the great man had intended it this way. The footnotes are only minimally helpful in sorting through the genealogy of these passages, because Ruddy's citations of essays and books do not include publication dates.
But why should snarky private outbursts be treated as interchangeable with scholarship? While Theodore Roosevelt had a strong splenetic streak -- Mark Twain called him "clearly insane" -- his writing was rarely rife with insults or vapid chatter. Reading the Ruddy book, you would have no sense that TR plundered the archives with admirable intensity for many of his books, nor any reason to believe that the greatest historians of his day -- Fredrick Jackson Turner, Francis Parkman -- sincerely praised his writing. Indeed, the American Historical Association's (AHA) decision to elect him as its president in 1912 would likely come as a major surprise. (It was the only presidential election he won that year.)
In fact, "History as Literature" was the title of his presidential address to the AHA and the cornerstone of one of his essay collections. Roosevelt returned the honor bestowed upon him by the profession with a screed against it. American historians, he asserted, had abandoned narrative storytelling in favor of the stiff scientific style of German academics. His argument would be familiar to any follower of recent internecine debates: the field, he complained, had chosen to express itself in impenetrable prose that walled off the reading public. It needed to return to the grand engaging narrative style of a previous generation of historians, who understood their field to be a branch of literature. "The imaginative power demanded for a great historian is different from that demanded for a great poet;" Roosevelt maintained, "but it is no less marked. Such imaginative power is in no sense incompatible with minute accuracy. On the contrary, very accurate, very real and vivid, presentation of the past can come only from one in whom the imaginative gift is very strong." This argument was true; and it was self-serving. He was elevating the virtues of his own writing -- color, verve, and readability.
The second part of TR's argument in the speech went a step further -- he always tended to go a step further. He stated that historians were obligated to play the role of moral arbiters and instructors. This was a perfect expression of Progressive Era uplift, the history department as settlement house. "It is no proof of impartiality to treat wickedness and goodness on the same level," he intoned. He believed that the best historian took sides in his recounting of events, even as he attempted to honestly analyze them and capture uncomfortable truths.
Both of these characteristics are evident in Roosevelt's own writing. He was an unabashed partisan of America's manifest destiny, as well as a certain idea of the American state. From the British historian Thomas Macaulay, he borrowed a belief in the superiority of the Teutonic peoples that had settled in England and then built this country. These were deeply engrained biases from which he could not escape, and they were only exacerbated by his own romanticism and veneration of "the glory of triumphant violence." Still, when he celebrated the Great Men of history, his heroes, he recognized his hagiographical impulses and attempted to check them. He loved Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, but he criticized their anti-democratic tendencies. Only Abraham Lincoln qualified for sainthood.
Ruddy is right to dwell on Roosevelt's histories. They provide a sense of the man, removed from his cultist followers and ideological detractors. From his narratives, you can see why Van Wyck Brooks could call him a "genius" and also why William James could denounce his state of permanent adolescence. You can see his irresistible vitality and keen descriptive eye, as well as his ridiculous veneration of militarism for manliness' sake.
And in the end, his historical work makes his leadership of the progressive movement look less a passing enthusiasm than a culmination of a life's work. From the time he wrote his college thesis on the War of 1812, his sympathies were clear enough. He abhorred Jefferson ("that slippery demagogue") and his decentralized vision, preferring to build upon Hamiltonian foundations. Without consciously setting out in that direction, he worked towards a more robust idea of the nation and the state, a new vision of American government.
Franklin Foer is editor-at-large of the New Republic.
Books mentioned in this post