Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Guest Post: Theodore Roosevelt, The Writer

[Guest post today from my friend/collaborator/partner-in-crime/technical husband in MA, Solomon. Let's see what mad knowledge bombs he's gonna be droppin' on us].

Theodore Roosevelt, the Writer

There exists a fairly well-defined caricature of our nation's 26th President -- with good reason.  The life of Theodore Roosevelt was crafted by his own design into something truly extraordinary.  And there's often very little need for hyperbole.  He did climb a mountain with his wife for their honeymoon.  He was a true-blue cowboy in South Dakota.  He really was the Harvard boxing champion and he really did lose sight in his left eye twenty years later sparring in the White House.  He almost fucking died in the fucking rainforest.

That shit happened.

He was also, without a doubt, the most well-read President in our nation's history.  With ease, the point could be made that while there were men who were more learned but of all of our leaders, Roosevelt had the purest affinity for the written word.  He could speed read and was known to devour entire books before leaving the house each morning.  He could read, at this pace, in French, Greek, Latin and German (though he very much disliked Greek and Latin).

[Side note from your editor: Candice Millard's incredible The River of Doubt, which recounts the journey through the Amazon, gives us the following story: Teddy his traveling with his son Kermit (a major-league asshole who really screwed up the Middle East, incidentally), and, at one point, re-injures his gimp leg and gets malaria. Also, they're in the territory of a native tribe that, unbeknownst to them, practices cannibalism towards intruders. Having read every book he brought with him, he borrows Kermit's library. And proceeds to not only read The Iliad in Greek, in the middle of the Amazon, surrounded by cannibals, but also to continuously mock Kermit's collection of French poets and complain about their Frenchy-Frenchness.
A metaphorical representation of T.R. vs. Baudelaire

In his life, he published eighteen full works.  His first, The Naval War of 1812 was to be considered the definitive work on the subject for the rest of his life and upon publication, it was ordered by the United States Navy that a copy was to be put aboard every American vessel.  Roosevelt wrote it while at Harvard and finished it before graduation.  Some historians aren't convinced that John F. Kennedy even actually wrote his book.  But that's probably just because the consensus is he must have been too busy sexing.
"He was a hyper-charismatic telephathical knight."

1812 (which is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free here) is an incredibly thorough piece of work for anyone, let alone a student, to have undertaken.  The book establishes, at once, the impossibly dense traits of Roosevelt's writing as well as the inherently lucid way in which the man strung his words together.  It is a dichotomy that can be found, at varying levels, in everything TR wrote thereafter: the heavily analytical mind operating with and/or against a remarkably lyrical soul.
"He was our kind. He quoted poetry to me. He knew poetry." - Robert Frost
But The Naval War of 1812 was just the beginning.  The high-water mark of Theodore Roosevelt's literary career came in 1894 with the remarkably ambitious, four volume treatment of the American conciousness, The Winning of the West (again, public domain - pick up volume one here).  Roosevelt defines his own Frontier Thesis.  Heavily abbreviated: that the inevitable westward expansions of American-born settlers and citizens, being hard-fought and punctuated by an atmosphere of danger and death, came to inform the types of gritty, noble, quintessentially American people he felt populated his country on the edge of the twentieth century.

Simply put, the thing is an epic.  It's like William Vollman trying to encapsulate the idea of violence in Rising Up and Rising Down.  Or Francis Ford Coppola trying to articulate the surreality of war with Apocalypse Now.  Some find even the first volume very difficult to get through.  Because it's the same sort of cerebral exploration... but your guide is Teddy Roosevelt.  And he wants to talk America with you.  For four volumes.

"Yer gonna wanna sit down."
But if you have the patience, it's the best example of what Roosevelt's writing could be.  It's that balancing act between high literature and meticulous detail, all framed against a zeal that's coming from such an honest place as to be immediately endearing.

With that in mind, turn to the fact that Roosevelt didn't have a speech-writer.  The exuberance for the act of living which is such a large part of his legacy translates so well into oratory.  A century after the fact, many of his speeches have maintained their relevancy and are still inspiring as hell.  Here's an excerpt from one such address, his famous "Man in the Arena" quote:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." - TR
Again, he didn't have a guy on staff who wrote this kind of thing when he needed to speak to the common man. That's just him, talking to all of us.  The proclamation services two points - first, as a giant "Fuck You" to the man's many, many detractors -

"Kiss my ass and suck my dick - everyone."
- and as a call to arms.  Roosevelt is imploring every one to stand up, bravely enter the Arena and realize their full potential.  There's a conviction to these words.  The deliberate pacing the wording demands - indeed, the snytax itself -it's evident how entirely he believes in what he is saying.  It's the kind of sentiment that makes the blood in your veins pump a little bit harder and, criticially speaking, is just a goddamn beautiful piece of prose.

[Your editor again: Just wanted to remind us that, in addition to being metaphorically powerful, Teddy's speeches were pretty goddamn literally strong as well.
That's a god. damn. bullet hole.
He did, of course, finish the speech.]

For more, the Library of America has published beautiful volumes of TR's collected speeches and letters and Edmund Morris is writing the finest biographies of Theodore Roosevelt available.  Presently a trilogy, it is in your interest to simply start at the beginning with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt - which covers the man's first forty-two years. 


  1. Why bother having someone write a guest post if you're just going to continually add editor's notes? I thoroughly enjoyed this aside from the interruptions. Also re-inure? Not only is that the wrong word but you've added an unnecessary hyphen. I would expect someone writing on literature to have picked up the Chicago Manual of Style once in awhile.

  2. Teddy was a fraud - a poser - he went out west and posed - he really was a dandy who love to play tennis but refused to be photographed playing because he wanted to propagate his John Wayne bit. He did give us the national parks. He did order the butchery of the Phillipines and can take pride in setting the stage for WWII in the Pacific. He did almost kill himself exploring S. America and he did get most of his party killed and in the end his son crashed due to his stewardship.