William Roscoe Thayer (18591923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
V. Back to the East and Literature
ONE September day in 1886, Roosevelt was reading a New York newspaper in his Elkhorn cabin, when he saw that he had been nominated by a body of Independents as candidate for Mayor of New York City. Whether he had been previously consulted or not, I do not know, but he evidently accepted the nomination as a call, for he at once packed up his things and started East. The political situation in the metropolis was somewhat abnormal. The United Democracy had nominated for Mayor Abram S. Hewitt, a merchant of high standing, one of those decent persons whom Tammany Hall puts forward to attract respectable citizens when it finds itself in a tight place and likely to be defeated. At such a pinch, Tammany even politely keeps in the background and allows it to appear that the decent candidate is wholly the choice of decent Democrats: for the Tammany Tiger wears, so to speak, a reversible skin which, when turned inside out, shows neither stripes nor claws. Mr. Hewitts chief opponent was Henry George, put up by the United Labor Party, which had suddenly swelled into importance, and had discovered in the author of Progress and Poverty and in the advocate of the Single Tax a candidate whose private character was generally respected, even by those who most hated his economic teachings. The mere thought that such a Radical should be proposed for Mayor scared, not merely the Big Interests, but the owners of real estate and intangible property.
Against these redoubtable competitors, the Independents and Republicans pitted Roosevelt, hoping that his prestige and personal popularity would carry the day. He made a plucky campaign, but Hewitt won, with Henry George second. In his letter of acceptance he went straight at the mark, which was that the government of the city was strictly a business affair. I very earnestly deprecate, he says, all attempts to introduce any class or caste feeling into the mayoralty contest. Laborers and capitalists alike are interested in having an honest and economical city government, and if elected I shall certainly strive to be the representative of all good citizens, paying heed to nothing whatever but the general well-being.1 When Tammany reverses its hide, the Republicans in New York City need not expect victory; and in 1886 Henry George drew off a good many votes which would ordinarily have been cast for Roosevelt.
Nevertheless, the fight was worth making. It reintroduced him to the public, which had not heard him for two years, and it helped erase from mens memories the fact that he had supported Blaine in 1884. His contest with Hewitt and George set him in his true lighta Republican by conviction, a party man, also by conviction, but above all the fearless champion of what he believed to be the right, in its struggle against economic heresy and political corruption.
The election over, Roosevelt went to Europe, and on December 2, 1886, at St. Georges, Hanover Square, London, he married Miss Edith Kermit Carow, of New York, whom he had known since his earliest childhood, the playmate of his sister Corinne, the little girl whose photograph had stirred up in him homesickness and longings for the past, when he was a little boy in Paris. Cecil Spring-Rice, an old friend (subsequently British Ambassador at Washington), was his groomsman, and being married at St. Georges, Theodore remarks, made me feel as if I were living in one of Thackerays novels.
Mrs. Roosevelts father came of Huguenot stock, the name being originally Quereau; the first French immigrants of the family having migrated to New York in the seventeenth century at about the same time as Claes van Roosevelt. Like the Roosevelts, the Carows had so freely intermarried with English stock in America that the French origin of one was as little discernible in their descendants as was the Dutch origin of the other. Through her American line Mrs. Roosevelt traced back to Jonathan Edwards, the prolific ancestor of many persons who emerged above the common level by either their virtue or their badness.
After spending several months in Europe, Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt returned and settled at Oyster Bay, Long Island, where he had built, not long before, a country house on Sagamore Hill. His place there comprised many acresa beautiful country of hill and hollow and fine tall trees. The Bay made in from Long Island Sound and seemed to be closed by the opposite shore, so that in calm weather you might mistake it for a lake. This home was thoroughly adapted for Roosevelts needs. Being only thirty miles from New York, with a railroad near by, convenient but not intrusive, it gave easy access to the city, but was remote enough to discourage casual or undesired callers. It had sufficient land to carry on farming and to sustain the necessary horses and domestic cattle. Mrs. Roosevelt supervised it; he simply loved it and got distraction from his more pressing affairs; if he had chosen to withdraw from these he might have devoted himself to the pleasing and leisurely life of a gentleman farmer. For a while his chief occupation was literary. Into this he pitched with characteristic energy. His innate craving for self-expression could never be satiated by speaking alone, and now, since he filled no public position which would be a cause or perhaps an excuse for speaking, he wrote with all the more enthusiasm.
Although he was less than seven years out of college, his political career had given him a national reputation, which helped and was helped by the vogue of his writings. The American public had come to perceive that Theodore Roosevelt could do nothing commonplace. The truth was, that he did many things that other men did which ceased to be commonplace only when he did them. Scores of other young men went on hunting trips after big game in the Rockies or the Selkirks, and even ranching had been engaged in by the enterprising and the adventurous, who hoped to find it a short way to a fortune. But whether as ranch man or as hunter, Roosevelt was better known than all the rest. His skill in describing his experiences no doubt largely accounted for this; but the fact that the experiences were his, was the ultimate explanation.
Roosevelt began to write very early. He thought that the instruction in rhetoric which he received at Harvard enlightened him, and during his Senior year he began the History of the Naval War of 1812, which he completed and published in 1882. This work at once won recognition for him, and it differed from the traditional accounts, embedded in the school histories of the United States, in doing full justice to the British naval operations. Probably, for the first time, our people realized that the War of 1812 had not been a series of victories, startling and irresistible, for the American Navy. Nearly ten years later, Roosevelt in the Winning of the West made his second excursion into history. These volumes, which eventually numbered six, are regarded by experts in the subject as of great value, and I suppose that in them Roosevelt did more than any other writer to popularize the study of the historical origin and development of the vast region west of the Alleghanies which now forms a vital part of the American Republic. One attribute of a real historian is the power to discern the structural or pregnant quality of historic periods and episodes; and this power Roosevelt displayed in choosing both the War of 1812 and the Winning of the West.
In his larger history Roosevelt had a swift, energetic, and direct style. He never lacked for ideas. Descriptions came to him with exuberant details of which he selected enough to leave his reader with the feeling that he had looked on a vivid and accurate picture. Here, for instance, is a portrait of Daniel Boon which seems remarkably lifelike, because I remember how difficult other writers find it to individualize most of the figures of the pioneers.
The backwoodsmen, he says, all tilled their own clearings, guiding the plow among the charred stumps left when the trees were chopped down and the land burned over, and they were all, as a matter of course, hunters. With Boon, hunting and exploration were passions, and the lonely life of the wilderness, with its bold, wild freedom, the only existence for which he really cared. He was a tall, spare, sinewy man, with eyes like an eagles, and muscles that never tired; the toil and hardship of his life made no impress on his iron frame, unhurt by intemperance of any kind, and he lived for eighty-six years, a backwoods hunter to the end of his days. His thoughtful, quiet, pleasant face, so often portrayed, is familiar to every one; it was the face of a man who never blustered or bullied, who would neither inflict nor suffer any wrong, and who had a limitless fund of fortitude, endurance, and indomitable resolution upon which to draw when fortune proved adverse. His self-command and patience, his daring, restless love of adventure, and, in time of danger, his absolute trust in his own powers and resources, all combined to render him peculiarly fitted to follow the career of which he was so fond.2
Roosevelt contributed two volumes to the American Statesmen Series, one on Thomas Hart Benton in 1886, and the other on Gouverneur Morris in 1887. The environment and careers of these two menthe Missouri Senator of the first half of the nineteenth century, and the New York financier of the last half of the eighteenthafforded him scope for treating two very diverse subjects. He was himself rooted in the old New York soil and he had come, through his life in the West, to divine the conditions of Bentons days. Once again, many years later (1900) he tried his hand at biography, taking Oliver Cromwell for his hero, and making a summary, impressionistic sketch of him. Besides the interest this biography has for students of Cromwell, it has also interest for students of Roosevelt, for it is a specimen of the sort of by-products he threw off in moments of relaxation.
More characteristic than such excursions into history and biography, however, are his many books describing ranch-life and hunting. In the former, he gives you truthful descriptions of the men of the West as he saw them, and in the latter he recounts his adventures with elk and buffalo, wolves and bears. The mere trailing and killing of these creatures do not satisfy him. He studies with equal zest their haunts and their habits. The naturalist in him, which we recognized in his youth, found this vent in his maturity. And long years afterward, on his expeditions to Africa and to Brazil he dealt even more exuberantly with the natural history of the countries which he visited.
Two other classes of writings make up Roosevelts astonishing output. He gathered his essays and addresses into half a dozen volumes, remarkable alike for the wide variety of their subjects, and for the vigor with which he seized on each subject as if it was the one above all others which most absorbed him. Finally, skim the collection of his official messages, as Commissioner, as Governor, or as President, and you will discover that he had the gift of infusing life and color into the usually drab and cheerless wastes of official documents.
I am not concerned to make a literary appraisal of Theodore Roosevelts manifold works, but I am struck by the fact that our professional critics ignore him entirely in their summaries or histories of recent American literature. As I re-read, after twenty years, and in some cases after thirty years, books of his which made a stir on their appearance, I am impressed, not only by the excellence of their writing, but by their lasting quality. If he had not done so many other things of greater importance, and done them supremely, he would have secured lasting fame by his books on hunting, ranching, and exploration. No other American compares with him, and I know of no other, in English at least, who has made a contribution in these fields equal to his.
Throughout these eight or ten volumes he proves himself to be one of those rare writers who see what they write. As in the case of Tennyson, than whom no English poet, in spite of nearsightedness, has observed so minutely the tiniest details of form or the faintest nuance of color, so the lack of normal vision did not prevent Roosevelt from being the closest of observers. He was also, by the way, a good shot with rifle or pistol. If you read one of his chapters in Hunting the Grizzly and ask yourself wherein its animation and attraction lie, you will find that it is because every sentence and every line report things seen. He does not, like the Realist, try to get a specious lifelikeness by heaping up banal and commonplace facts; he selects. His imagination reminds one of the traveling spark which used to run along the great chandelier in the theatre, and light each jet, so that its passage seemed a flight from point to point of brilliance. Wherever he focuses his survey a spot glows vividly.
The eye, the master sense of the mind, thus dominates him, and I think that we shall trace to its mastery much of the immediate power which he exerted by his writings and speeches on public, social, and moral topics. He struck off, in the heat of composition or of speaking, phrases and similes which millions caught up eagerly and made as familiar as household words. He even remembered from his extensive reading some item which, when applied by him to the affair of the moment, acquired new pertinence and a second life. Thus, Bunyans muckraker lives again; thus, the curse of Meroz, and many another Bible reference, springs up with a fresh meaning.
No doubt the purist will find occasional lapses in taste or expression, and the quibbling peddler of rhetoric will gloat over some doubtful construction; but neither purist nor peddler of rhetoric has ever been able in his writing to display the ease, the rush, the naturalness, the sparkle which were as genuine in Roosevelt as were the features of his face. On reading these pages, which have escaped the attention of the professional critics, I wonder whether they may not have a fate similar to Defoes; for Defoe also was read voraciously by his contemporaries, his pamphlets made a great rustle in their time, and then the critics turned to other and spicier writers. But in due season, other critics, as well as the world, made the discovery that only a genius could have produced Defoes every-day, commonplace style.
His innate vigor, often swelling into vehemence, marks also Roosevelts political essays, and yet he had time for reflection, and if you examine closely even some of his combative passages, you will see that they do not spring from sudden anger or scorn, but from a conviction which has matured slowly in him. He had not the philosophic calm which formed the background of Burkes political masterpieces, but he had the clearness, the simplicity, by which he could drive home his thoughts into the minds of the multitude. Burke spoke and wrote for thousands and for posterity; Roosevelt addressed millions for the moment, and let posterity do what it would with his burning appeals and invectives. He was not so absolutely self-effacing as Lincoln, but I think that he realized to the full the meaning of Lincolns phrase, the world will little note, nor long remember what we may say here, and that he would have made it his motto. For he, like all truly great statesmen, was so immensely concerned in winning todays battle, that he wasted no time in speculating what tomorrow, or next year, or next century would say about it. Mysticism, the recurrent fad which indicates that its victims neither see clear nor think straight, could not spread its veils over him. The man who visualizes is safe from that intellectual weakness and moral danger. But although Roosevelt felt the sway of the true emotions, he allowed only his intimates to know what he held most intimate and sacred. He felt also the charm of beauty, and over and over again in his descriptions of hunting and riding in the West, he pauses to recall beautiful scenery or some unusual bit of landscape; and even in remembering his passage down the River of Doubt, when he came nearer to death than he ever came until he died, in spite of tormenting pain and desperate anxiety for his companions, he mentions more than once the loveliness of the river scene or of the massed foliage along its banks. Naturalist though he was, bent first on studying the habits of birds and animals, he yet took keen delight in the iridescent plumage or graceful form or the beautiful fur of bird and beast.
The quality of a writer can best be judged by reading a whole chapter, or two or three, of his book, but sometimes he reveals a phase of himself in a single paragraph. Read, for instance, this brief extract from Roosevelts Through the Brazilian Wilderness, if you would understand some of the traits which I have just alluded to. It comes at the end of his long and dismaying exploration of the River of Doubt, when the party was safe at last, and the terrible river was about to flow into the broad, lakelike Amazon, and Manaos was almost in sight, where civilization could be laid hold on again, Manaos, whence the swift ships went steaming towards the Atlantic and the Atlantic opened a clear path home. He says:
The North was calling strongly the three men of the NorthRocky Dell Farm to Cherrie, Sagamore Hill to me; and to Kermit the call was stronger still. After nightfall we could now see the Dipper well above the horizonupside down with the two pointers pointing to a North Star below the worlds rim; but the Dipper, with all its stars. In our home country spring had now come, the wonderful Northern spring of long, glorious days, of brooding twilight, of cool, delightful nights. Robin and bluebird, meadow-lark and song-sparrow were singing in the mornings at home; the maple buds were red; windflowers and bloodroot were blooming while the last patches of snow still lingered; the rapture of the hermit thrush in Vermont, the serene golden melody of the wood thrush on Long Island, would be heard before we were there to listen. Each was longing for the homely things that were so dear to him, for the home people who were dearer still, and for the one who was dearest of all.3