Theodore Roosevelt not only was a notable military leader, he was a vivacious bibliophile and a distinguished author. In their book, Theodore Roosevelt, a Literary Life, authors Thomas Cullen Bailey and Katherine Joslin examine this remarkable President’s life, focusing special attention on his love of reading. In the following interview, they offer highlights from their research. What a pleasure to learn from these two historians!
What books do you think had the most impact on T. R. and his development?
That would be hard to say. Not that we’re ducking the question exactly. But from the time he could read, which because he was a precocious boy happened as early in his life as four years of age, he read constantly. Over the course of a reading life of 56 years, he read thousands and thousands of books. Some masterpieces. Some good ones. Lots of bad ones. History. Science. Novels. Poems. Books by men, books by women (and lots of them); books written for boys (Booth Tarkington’s Penrod was a favorite); books written for girls (he and his sisters loved the novels of Louisa May Alcott). He might not finish a book if he didn’t like it; he might read it a second or third time if he did. He often stopped in the middle of a read to write to the author and ask for a meeting, and most writers came to see him, especially when he wrote to them from The White House.
While in the White House, he used the head of the Library of Congress as his personal librarian, writing to him with long lists of books—histories, literary classics, epic poems of such countries as Hungary and Sweden. He often asked for military histories. He would read stack after stack of books, almost always sending them back with orders for more.
This scattershot manner of reading served him better than it might serve most of us, because he had a retentive memory, especially when books really caught his interest. When his concentration was fully engaged (and it had to be a pretty good book to engage it), he would slow down, read with extreme care, and years later, when the need arose to talk about such a book, the pages would return to him in something like photographic detail.
He knew the ancients as well as the moderns, the medieval romances and warriors. TR could read French, and German, and Latin, and stumble along in Spanish; he wasn’t too good at Greek, but knew a good translation from a bad one, and insisted that one should know the works of Thucydides, Xenophon and Ptolemy. He knew and read over and over again the 19th-century poets of England, France, and especially America; his favorite poets of his own literature were, especially, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his fellow poets like Lowell, and Whittier, and in a different vein, Walt Whitman. TR thought Walt Whitman was the “Dante of the Bowery.” The two New Yorkers were alike in celebrating the energies of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is fair to point out that while Roosevelt read the writings of many women as enthusiastically as he read the writings of men, male writers were more often at the top of his lists of favorites, especially Sir Walter Scott’s novels, Gaelic poems, the epic Nibelungenlied, and other national sagas, to which he returned time after time, and which were featured in the famed set of books he took with him to Africa in 1909 and 1910, which he called his Pigskin Library. Still, he admired Edith Wharton (Ethan Frome was his favorite) and thought he owed it to Jane Austen to read her works, but joked, “If I finish anything by Miss Austen I have a feeling that duty performed is rainbow to the soul.”
As he says in his book African Game Trails, in which he discusses the Pigskin Library and other book lists, “there are many thousands of good books; some of them meet one man’s needs, some another’s.” In his autobiography, published a few years after the Africa book, he touches again of the subject of reading at home in Sagamore Hill, where “books are everywhere”:
I could not name a principle upon which the books have been gathered. Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no use in laying down general laws about them. . . .I read them because I enjoyed them because I liked reading them, and the profit came in as part of the enjoyment.
What books should a statesman read? Poetry and novels. History, science, government, philosophy. But, he maintains, “in the final event, the statesman, and the publicist, and the reformer, and the agitator for new things, and the upholder of what is good in old things, (and he might well have added the military readers), all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature. . .set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers.”
Which books influenced TR?? All the many books that TR read in one way or another impacted his life, mind, and development. Reading for TR was always contingent: if you enjoy Dickens’s Great Expectations, it might be good to take a crack at Thackeray’s Vanity Fair; if Xenophon intrigues you, try some Sophocles. Every reader is his own judge and makes his own list. The important thing is to be always reading. If one doesn’t have a history of lifelong reading as compulsive as TR’s (who among us has?), it is better to read than not read, and it is never too late to start.
What books of the 48 written by TR would the two of you recommend to military readers?
TR meant his books to be read, and because he considered himself to be as much as anything else a professional writer, he wanted to make his living by writing those books.
And there are several volumes that members of the military might read today with both interest and profit.
The Naval War of 1812  is his first book, and in some ways his beginner’s status shows, but it remains to this day a compelling rehearsal of the battles between the US and Britain on the Great Lakes, and is an especially fine telling of the decisive battle waged between the two navies in the Battle of Plattsburgh, September 11, 1814. The British liked his historical accuracy so much that later, when their complete naval history was being compiled, they asked Roosevelt, by then Vice President, to write the passages about the battles in the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain.
Any edition of American Ideals would be useful, because as Roosevelt says in the preface to that book which he wrote in 1899, “these essays are written on behalf of the many men who take an actual role in trying to bring about the conditions for which we somewhat vaguely hope; on behalf of the under-officers in that army.”
Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail  details his life in the Dakota territories as he hunts and works and awaits his upcoming marriage to his childhood friend and second wife Edith Carow. He tells Western stories with flashes of fiction, full of strange characters and lively dialect.
The Winning of the West in four volumes [1889-1899], in which he details the grand narrative of how Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio were settled, and which contains wonderful portraits of men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.
The Rough Riders , his tale (sometimes tall) of his exploits, bravery and derring-do in the Spanish American War, for which he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, thus making him and his son, Theodore Roosevelt, Junior, the only father-son winners in US history.
The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses  which contains his thoughts on strenuous living to which he’d return again and again, and which culminate in his famous speech to the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910 entitled “The Man in the Arena.”
Through the Brazilian Wilderness  in which he details his perilous and life-threatening adventures in exploring, as a 55-year-old fat man, an unknown river in the Mato Grosso in company with the Brazilian national hero, Cândido Mariano de Silva Rondon.
A Book-Lover’s Holiday in the Open , his valedictory to his life in the arena and in the rugged outdoors, and a gentle set of essays about various adventures he’s had in his life, and not until now detailed. The preface to this book demonstrates TR’s writing at its best.
Can you provide a specific example where reading helped TR learn from others’ experience?
TR famously maintained in his 1912 autobiography that “I have always had a horror of words that are not translated into deeds, of speech that does not result in action—in other words, I believe in realizable ideals and in realizing them.”
A primary example of this, and which TR had specifically in mind when he was writing his autobiography, was Jacob Riis and his bestseller from 1890, How the Other Half Lives. TR went to see Riis, requesting a firsthand tour of the slums his book had revealed, and asking for practical advice on how to approach “these problems with more common sense and sobriety.” And later, when TR became Governor of New York, and later President, Riis’s thinking became the groundwork for much of TR’s social legislation on housing and working conditions.
Roosevelt took the thoughts of writers and turned them into action, words into deeds. This is especially true in regard to his far-sighted policies on conservation and preservation of wilderness built on the writings of John Burroughs and John Muir, the leading naturalists of his day. TR partnered with John Lacey, Congressman from Iowa, to turn these ideas into legislation, the language of law, creating the Antiquities Act, signed by TR into law on June 8, 1906.
How did TR’s leadership philosophy develop?
As TR’s political career developed, from the time he was a young legislator in Albany, he saw clearly that the public was ill-served by political appointees who traded influence for money, and who supported private interests over the public good. He decided early on that civil service was an absolute need for state and national government, and that work for the government should be based on merit, on disinterest, and on talent, not on friendship (purchased or not) and self-interest. In building his philosophy of service, he was developing skills to lead such men and women in a government designed to serve the people rather than enrich the few. That he was the man to lead such a government was, owing to his organizational genius, his broad-ranging intelligence, and his innate (and for some people his overwhelming) charisma, obvious as his career developed. He was always seen as a person of leadership potential, and later, as a powerful leader.
Another aspect of his leadership that became obvious in the Spanish American War, for instance, was his willingness to take command of forces when no one else was willing or able to do so. When the battle of Kettle Hill began to rage, the American forces were baffled and without a set plan; Roosevelt, though not at all the ranking officer, seeing this and knowing a military advantage when he saw one (in spite of his lack of formal training), simply took over. TR organized a charge up the hill, which lead to his fame, his myth, his subsequent political success.
Another way we might see TR’s philosophy of leadership rendered in battle would be to take a look at how his son Ted exercised his own leadership in WWII. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was the only general to lead his troops into the D-Day Battle, and after having waded ashore under the withering German fire, found such a chaos there, that he simply stood in the midst of flying bullets, commanding men where to go, how to protect themselves, how to reconnoiter, what to expect for the next few hours and days. His personal leadership had a calming and encouraging and reviving effect on the bewildered men. Ted on that day exemplified his father’s “man in the arena” philosophy and, as was said before, for that personal bravery and leadership was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, this honor was posthumous, because General Roosevelt died some two weeks after D-Day of a massive heart attack.
What books do you think TR would want to be added to the Army or Navy Reading list?
He would certainly want the men and women of the US Military to read his own books, especially those we detailed above, and he would insist on the classic books of warfare, and the histories of the great wars. We are sure, for example, though he was dead long before Shelby Foote wrote his magisterial history of the Civil War, he would recommend such a tour de force. And, because he loved writing of more or less informal types, he would recommend such writers as Patrick O’Brian, whose sea novels detail the exploits of Jack Aubrey, a superb (but flawed) naval commander, and his ship’s physician pal, Stephen Maturin, a spy for the British Government, and their adventures during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century.
Mainly, though, he would insist that the men and women of our military read. Read the list and outside the list. Newspapers. Magazines. Works written by ‘the opposition.’ Works written by ‘enemies.’ Works written by folks who occupy similar political views as well as by those who don’t.
Theodore Roosevelt believed with all his heart, and his life story reveals this, that to read is to be fully in this world. And then to write. Words into deeds. Deeds accomplished put back into words. Language (which could be seen as thought) and action are not and should never be in opposition.
Where would you recommend people buy your book?
Theodore Roosevelt, A Literary Life is available at Barnes and Noble and other chain bookstores, and online at Amazon and on Kindle. We would put in a word for local independent bookstores, and also for local libraries, both organizations integral to the health of community life.
Where can people reach you?
Katherine Joslin can be reached by email at [email protected].
Tom Bailey can be reached by email at [email protected]
We welcome inquiries and questions and will do our best to respond promptly.
Both sides of our family have served in the military. Katherine’s maternal grandfather, Arthur E. Lettow, Corporal, Purple Heart, served in the U. S. Army in WWI, and lost his only son, Charles Austin Lettow, on the aircraft carrier Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942. Her father, James E. Joslin, served in the Naval Shore Patrol at the San Diego Naval Base during WWII. Tom’s great-grandfather Bailey fought for the US in the Civil War, while his great-grandfather Sliger fought for the Confederacy. Tom’s uncles all served in WWII, two in the Navy, and two in the Army, one of whom was a paratrooper.
We are pleased to participate in DODReads. And we appreciate the strenuous life and courage of our men and women in the military. Thank you for the opportunity, and we hope you enjoy our book.
What a pleasure to chat with these distinguished authors and get their perspective on our 26th president. Thank you both!
Thomas Cullen Bailey is an Emeritus Professor of English and Environmental Studies. He served for many years as the Western Michigan University Ombudsman and then became the Associate Provost and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and, later still, chaired a department in the Education College and directed the Environmental Studies Program. In 2011, the University awarded him the Distinguished Service Award. He has chaired boards at Fontana Chamber Arts and Bach Festival. A long-time member of the Kalamazoo Symphony Board, he now serves on the board at Open Doors. His writings include essays on Benjamin Franklin, Robert Frost, John McPhee, Rick Bass, and Mary Oliver.
Katherine Joslin is the founding director of Western Michigan University’s Center for the Humanities. A Professor of English, she was named the Distinguished Faculty Scholar in 2011 and the Alumni Teacher of the Year in 1997. Her books include Jane Addams, A Writer’s Life (2004) and Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion (2011), winner of a Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title Award. She is a founding member of the Edith Wharton Society and has served as president of its board. In 2014, she was named the Visiting U.S. Fellow at the Eccles Centre in the British Library, and in 2008 was a Fulbright Scholar in Egypt and later served on the Fulbright Senior Specialist Award Committee.