WSW: Theodore Roosevelt's Literary Life

Apr 13, 2018

Theodore Roosevelt taking a break from writing and politics
Credit AP Photo

The word "literary" doesn't usually come to mind when thinking about U.S. presidents. But the nation's 26th president most definitely was a "literary man." So argue Western Michigan University professors Thomas Bailey and Katherine Joslin in their new book, Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life (University Press of New England, 2018).

Bailey and Joslin say "Tedie" began writing early, filling journal after journal with acute observations about the world around him when he was just nine years old. He wrote 42 books, co-authored six others, and produced countless letters, speeches, and magazine articles. They say his love of language through writing and reading ran throughout his life.

Credit University Press of New England

Theodore Roosevelt didn't stick to only one or two literary genres. He wrote histories of naval operations in the War of 1812 and the settlement of the western frontier. He crafted "hunting tales" and books about adventures shooting his way through wildlife on three continents - stories Bailey and Joslin admit may be hard for present day readers to stomach. Roosevelt considered himself a naturalist and his first publication was a slender volume about the birds of New York's Adirondack region, co-written with a friend from Harvard. Roosevelt's most famous book, The Rough Riders, chronicles his military experiences in the Caribbean during the Spanish-American War, which culminated in the legendary "Charge up San Juan Hill" in 1898. The book was so focused on Roosevelt that one contemporary humorist said it should have been titled "Alone in Cubia." A self- styled "man of action," Roosevelt ran a ranch in South Dakota, mounted a major safari to collect animal specimens for the American Museum of Natural History in Africa, and participated in an exploratory expedition in South America that nearly killed him.

And then there were politics and political rhetoric. Roosevelt served as a state legislator and governor in New York, police commissioner in New York City, assistant secretary of the navy, and vice-president. TR became the youngest U.S. president ever in 1901 at the age of 42 following the assassination of William McKinley. He tried unsuccessfully to return to the White House on the third-party Progressive "Bull Moose" ticket in 1912 and was thinking about running yet again in 1920, but died at the age of 60 in 1919. Many years later, his face was carved into Mount Rushmore along with those of Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson.

Bailey and Joslin say Roosevelt's literary legacy sets him apart from other presidents. He knew, read, entertained, and argued with other men of letters like novelist Henry James, the poet Walt Whitman, and early science fiction writer H.G. Wells. After leaving the White House, Roosevelt served with the then-new American Academy of Arts and Letters, and headed a national group of professional historians.

They'll talk about their book, Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life, at Bookbug in Kalamazoo, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 19.

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