Tuesday, September 29, 2009


“But children can be very early taught, that their happiness, both now and hereafter, depends on the formation of habits of submission, self-denial, and benevolence.”
Catherine E. Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home

Sunday, September 27, 2009


“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Books vs. Life

“Oh, we can stand a little hardship, I guess. The race hasn’t degenerated that far. In a book, now, it would be kind of terrible; if you forced characters in a book to eat as much grapefruit as we do, both the art boys and the humanitarians would stand on their hind legs and howl. But in real life— In life, anything might happen; in actual life people will do anything. It’s only in books that people must function according to arbitrary rules of conduct and probability; it’s only in books that events must never flout credulity.”
William Faulkner, Mosquitoes (Dawson Fairchild)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I’m not in the habit of tooting my own horn, but I am really happy with the entry I wrote on Brave New World after listening to it years ago as an audiobook.

From December 6, 2004:

The next audiobook after The Handmaid’s Tale and another dystopic vision of the future. I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as My Antonia or The Moon and Sixpence, but I believe I will add it to my get and read again list anyway. It’s a classic, after all, and its vision of the future is stark and compelling. In fact, now that I think on it, I realize that it’s the vision that is worth revisiting, and not so much the story.

There were really two things here that, although taken to a ridiculous extreme, reflect poorly on our present society and make me wonder how truly close we are to that Brave New World. The first is the idea of conditioning. In BNW, people believe what they believe because it has been conditioned into them, a conscious part of their education as well as reinforced ad infinitum during their periods of sleep. Hypnopedia is what Huxley calls it. But even in our own society, absent subliminal messages played repeatedly in our sleep, I wonder how much of what we believe we believe because we have been “conditioned” to think a certain way. “People believe in God because they have been conditioned to believe in God,” Mustapha Mond famously says, but he also questions the philosopher who said that philosophy is the practice of coming up with bad reasons to believe what we believe intrinsically. “As if people believe anything intrinsically.” That will make you think. Do we know or believe anything apart from what our environment has taught us? Can we? How is that different from being conditioned to believe a certain thing?

The second is the idea of consumption. In BNW, to consume commercially-produced products is more than patriotic, it is a sign of good citizenship. To mend clothes that have torn or fix things that have broken—rather than getting new ones—is seen as antisocial and wrong. After all, consumption drives the economy, keeps people employed, and therefore gives purpose to a thousand otherwise meaningless tasks and the people that perform them. And all of the “approved” forms of recreation require elaborate and expensive equipment to participate in. There’s nothing you can do by yourself (with a pen and a piece of paper, for example). Everything requires a group and the latest in an unending chain of upgraded tools and devices. Again, I see this as different from our own society only in degree, not in basic premise.

I also like the way Huxley brought in the title. John is a “savage” raised by Indians on a reservation where the rules of BNW don’t apply. He is given a book of Shakespeare’s plays which he reads voraciously and basically memorizes. Like Miranda upon seeing men from across the sea, he quotes, “Oh, brave new world that contains men such as these,” when he finally meets men from the BNW society.

The last part of the book is an interesting analysis of how the world of Shakespeare cannot co-exist with the Brave New World. BNW has eliminated all forms of human passion by declaring that everyone belongs to everyone else, and abolishing the family unit as the basis of society. Babies are born in test tubes and children are raised in conditioning centers. No one has a wife to cheat on or a lover to pine for. No one has a child to care for or a brother to compete against. For the BNWers, it is the ultimate expression of human happiness because there is no war, crime, or strife of any kind, and people spend eight hours a day making positive contributions to society and then take a recreational drug (called soma in the novel) and have sex with each other as much as they want. For John the Savage, it’s a world turned upside down and, after an initial fascination, a decidedly insidious one. He much prefers the human passions of Shakespeare, even if they too frequently lead to heartache, betrayal, and death.

There’s much more to say about this book—the caste system in which embryos are nurtured or neglected from the very beginning to produce the right number of geniuses to keep innovation moving forward and the right number of morons to keep the machines running, for example—but again, almost none of it is about the story. It’s almost all about the premise. Bernard Marx is no Winston Smith, and there isn’t a time when we care about him as much as we do the other.

I’m not sure there’s much new substance I could add to that, although having now read it in hard copy, I’ve made notes on several dog-eared pages, and that gives me a prime opportunity to cite several passages from the text itself that expound on one of the novel’s main themes—conditioning.

The Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning perhaps says it best on page 15:

“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.”

The whole opening section of the novel is, in fact, an introduction to the way BNW develops and conditions its children to fulfill the social destiny that’s been determined for them. It’s a conditioning that Bernard Marx and then John the Savage rebel against, the first from within and the second from without the construct of that conditioning itself.

I say at the very bottom of my previous entry that Bernard Marx is not Winston Smith, and what I mean by that is that Marx never captures the reader’s compassion and fealty the way Smith does, even though they are both fighting against the inhuman machinations that control their societies. Marx is ultimately not BNW’s protagonist, the way Smith is 1984’s. In BNW, that honor ultimately goes to John the Savage, but Huxley allows us to flirt with Marx for a while before introducing his novel’s real conflict.

Marx’s most endearing scene, for me, is when he speaks out against his conditioning, in language his love interest Lenina (similarly, no Julia) can’t hope to understand.

On their way back across the Channel, Bernard insisted on stopping his propeller and hovering on his helicopter screws within a hundred feet of the waves. The weather had taken a change for the worse; a south-westerly wind had sprung up, the sky was cloudy.

“Look,” he commanded.

“But it’s horrible,” said Lenina, shrinking back from the window. She was appalled by the rushing emptiness of the night, by the black foam-flecked water heaving beneath them, by the pale face of the moon, so haggard and distracted among the hastening clouds. “Let’s turn on the radio. Quick!” She reached for the dialing knob on the dashboard and turned it at random.

“…skies are blue inside of you,” sang sixteen tremoloing falsettos, “the weather’s always…”

Then a hiccough and silence. Bernard had switched off the current.

“I want to look at the sea in peace,” he said. “One can’t even look with that beastly noise going on.”

“But it’s lovely. And I don’t want to look.”

“But I do,” he insisted. “It makes me feel as though…” he hesitated, searching for words with which to express himself, “as though I were more me, if you see what I mean. More on my own, not so completely a part of something else. Not just a cell in the social body. Doesn’t it make you feel like that, Lenina?”

But Lenina was crying. “It’s horrible, it’s horrible,” she kept repeating. “And how can you talk like that about not wanting to be part of the social body? After all, every one works for every one else. We can’t do without any one. Even Epsilons…”

“Yes, I know,” said Bernard derisively. “‘Even Epsilons are useful’! So am I. And I damned well wish I weren’t!”

Lenina was shocked by his blasphemy. “Bernard!” She protested in a voice of amazed distress. “How can you?”

In a different key, “How can I?” he repeated meditatively. “No, the real problem is: How is it that I can’t, or rather—because, after all, I know quite well why I can’t—what would it be like if I could, if I were free—not enslaved by my conditioning.”

“But, Bernard, you’re saying the most awful things.”

“Don’t you wish you were free, Lenina?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.”

He laughed. “Yes, ‘Everybody’s happy nowadays.’ We begin giving the children that at five. But wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she repeated.

Indeed, Lenina doesn’t. She has never had any reason to question her conditioning. To her, Bernard’s pining for something other than what he has been conditioned for is unnatural, almost obscene. But when they visit the savage reservation together, we see in Lenina’s reaction to that society’s sights and sounds both a horror of things different and a deep abiding understanding of at least one basic element of all human culture.

Lenina liked the drums. Shutting her eyes she abandoned herself to their soft repeated thunder, allowed it to invade her consciousness more and more completely, till at last there was nothing left in the world but that one deep pulse of sound. It reminded her reassuringly of the synthetic noises made at Solidarity Services and Ford’s Day celebrations. “Orgy-porgy,” she whispered to herself. These drums beat out just the same rhythms.

There was a sudden startling burst of singing—hundreds of male voices crying out fiercely in harsh and metallic unison. A few long notes and silence, the thunderous silence of the drums; then shrill, in a neighing treble, the women’s answer. Then again the drums; and once more the men’s deep savage affirmation of their manhood.

Queer—yes. The place was queer, so was the music, so were the clothes and the goiters and the skin diseases and the old people. But the performance itself—there seemed to be nothing especially queer about that.

“It reminds me of a lower-caste Community Sing,” she told Bernard.

And as I said before, it is Marx’s and Lenina’s introduction to John the Savage and his society that provides the vehicle for the ultimate conflict in the novel—not the one between Marx and his conditioning, but the one between the controlled, stable society of BNW and the random, myth-believing society of the savage reservation. Both societies are flawed—in neither one do the citizens embrace the truths of their existence. And it is only World Controller Mustapha Mond—our antagonist—who is in a position to understand the price that is paid to make the Brave New World possible.

In a scene reminiscent of Smith’s truth revealing encounter with O’Brien, John asks Mond why there can’t be things like Shakespeare’s Othello in his society.

“Because our world is not the same as Othello’s world. You can’t make flivvers without steel—and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty!” He laughed. “Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy!”

The Savage was silent for a little. “All the same,” he insisted obstinately, “Othello’s good, Othello’s better than those feelies.”

“Of course it is,” the Controller agreed. “But that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.”

This is the section in which Mustapha Mond famously says, “People believe in God because they’ve been conditioned to believe in God,” but that sentiment seems at odds with this thesis, which Mond presents just two pages prior.

“That sickness is old age; and a horrible disease it is. They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion as they advance in years. But my own experience has given me the conviction that, quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind a cloud; our soul feels, sees, turns toward the source of all light; turns naturally and inevitably; for now that all that gave the world of sensations its life and charms has begun to leak away from us, now that phenomenal existence is no more bolstered up by impressions from within or from without, we feel the need to lean on something that abides, something that will never play us false—a reality, an absolute and everlasting truth. Yes, we inevitably turn to God; for this religious sentiment is of its nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses.”

I can’t tell if Huxley is trying to say something permanent about God here—if he does and doesn’t actually believe that God is an ultimate and transcendent truth of our existence. He seems to smash the idea with Mond’s more famous line two pages later, but the rest of the discussion seems to argue that God is something Mond has to protect the BNWers from, like Shakespeare, in order to have the happiness and stability they seek.

One final point. John the Savage seems to hold his own throughout this climactic discussion with Mond, and we the contemporary reader, who feel more affinity for John’s Shakespeare than Mond’s feelies, wish John to succeed, want him to destroy this unfeeling Brave New World if he can. But John doesn’t, and after his banishment, we see that perhaps our fealty to his savage predilections was misplaced.

John is ultimately tortured by the ideals of his savage world, and he actually flogs himself as punishment for sullying the purity he seeks to maintain. Pledged to holding sacred and constant the memory of his dead mother, Linda, the memory and carnal desires associated with an unfulfilled encounter with Lenina cause him to quite lose his mind.

“Strumpet! Strumpet!” he shouted at every blow as though it were Lenina (and how frantically, without knowing it, he wished it were), white, warm, scented, infamous Lenina that he was flogging thus. “Strumpet!” And then, in a voice of despair, “Oh, Linda, forgive me. Forgive me, God. I’m bad. I’m wicked. I’m…No, no, you strumpet, you strumpet!”

It makes you wonder which side you’re supposed to fall on. Ultimately, I realize that the choice of the Savage is no better than the choice we face as the reader. Which society should we embrace? The one based on the passions of our distant past, or on the calculated happiness of our stable future? And if we choose neither extreme, an even larger question looms. How do we ensure that we walk the correct and delicate line between them when others will invariably want to pull our society in one direction or the other?

Monday, September 14, 2009


"The sense of belonging is one of the great gifts men get in battle."
James A. Michener, Tales of the South Pacific

Monday, September 7, 2009

Art and Artists

“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Basil Hallward)

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“Even now I cannot help feeling that it is a mistake to think that the passion one feels in creation is ever really shown in the work one creates. Art is always more abstract that we fancy. Form and colour tell us of form and colour—that is all. It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Basil Hallward)

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"The only artists I have ever known, who are personally delightful, are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what the are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more pictureesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realise."
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lord Henry Wotton)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

I remember admiring Theodore Roosevelt after reading H. W. Brands’ treatment of his life in TR: The Last Romantic. That book, and one of its key chapters, even inspired me to write my River of Doubt short story about famous fathers and less-famous sons and how an individual’s strength of character can sometimes become so all encompassing that it takes the place of the human person that gives it life.

Well, I’m a bit less admiring of Roosevelt after reading Morris’ treatment of him in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Brands and Morris are both skilled biographers, but they have different interpretations of TR’s underlying character, and given the life experiences that I’ve had between the two readings (I finished Brands in late 1998), I find Morris’ portrayal disturbing in several fundamental ways.

Essentially, what comes through more strongly in Morris’ treatment is Roosevelt’s jingoistic Americanism, and his belief that Americans as a people and as a nation were destined for greatness through imperial expansion.

In describing Roosevelt’s participation as a featured speaker at the Independence Day 1886 celebration in the small town of Dickinson, Dakota Territory, Morris says:

With all his boyish soul, he loved and revered the Fourth of July. The flags, the floats, the brass bands—even Thomas Jefferson’s prose somehow thrilled him. This particular Independence Day (the first ever held in Western Dakota) found him feeling especially patriotic. He was filled, not only with the spirit of Manifest Destiny, but with “the real and healthy democracy of the round-up.” The completion of another book, the modest success of his two ranches, his fame as the captor of Redhead Finnegan, the joyful thought of his impending remarriage, all conspired further to elevate his mood. These things, plus the sight of hundreds of serious, sunburned faces turned his way, brought out the best and the worst in him—his genuine love for America and Americans, and his vainglorious tendency to preach.

The book Morris refers to was a biography of Thomas Hart Benton, one of the first senators from the state of Missouri, and a strong proponent (like Roosevelt) of American expansion.

The most controversial chapter of the book is that devoted to Benton’s doctrine of westward expansion, which Roosevelt defines as “our manifest destiny to swallow up the land of all adjoining nations who were too weak to withstand us.” The “Oregon” of the 1840s—an enormous wilderness stretching west from the Rockies, and north from California to Alaska—was a prize that both the United States and Britain were entitled to share. But the “arrogant attitude” of Senator Benton, in claiming most of it, “was more than justified by the destiny of the great Republic; and it would have been well for all America if we had insisted even more than we did upon the extension northward of our boundaries.” Warming to his theme, Roosevelt declares that “Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba would, as States of the American Union, hold positions incomparably more important, grander and more dignified than…as provincial dependencies of a foreign power…No foot of soil to which we have any title in the Northwest should have been given up; we were the people who could use it best, and we ought to have taken it all.”

I think at one time my eye would have simply glossed over some of these phrases, but now they seem to jump out at me—“…swallow up the land of all adjoining nations who were too weak to withstand us...” and “…justified by the destiny of the great Republic…” seem especially egregious and indicative of Roosevelt’s unabashed “might makes right” and “we’re better than everyone else” style of Americanism.

I’m sometimes embarrassed to admit how long it takes me to learn the lessons of history—how often my eye glosses over words that contain fundamental context and understanding. As a quick aside, read this short passage about Roosevelt’s experiences in the Badlands of Dakota Territory:

Here, for thousands of square miles around, were juicy pastures, sheltered bottoms, and open stretches of range whose ability to support countless thousands of bovine animals had been demonstrated over the centuries. Now that the buffalo and red men were on their way out, cattle and white men could move in.

Forever I thought the buffalo were slaughtered mostly for sport, but this book’s analysis of the spirit of empire and colonization that pervaded Roosevelt’s thinking and that of his time has shown me that this can’t possibly be true.

Thomas Hart Benton was not the only book Roosevelt wrote. Indeed, Roosevelt was, among many other things, a published author of some note, and these themes show up again and again in his books. One critic, reading Roosevelt’s History of the City of New York, said this:

“Mr. Roosevelt preaches too much. He lays down the singular proposition that a feeling of broad, radical, intense Americanism is necessary if good work is to be done in any direction…The sooner we get over talking about ‘American’ systems of philosophy, and ethics, and art, and devote ourselves to what is true, and right, and beautiful, the sooner we shall shake off our provincialism.”

Probably nowhere is this chest-beating Americanism more prevalent than in Roosevelt’s campaign for, participation in, and myth-making triumph in the Spanish-American War. He was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time, serving in the first McKinley Administration, and did about everything he could to maneuver the country into the war, including ordering (probably without the authority to do so) the Navy to annex the Phillipines as some kind of protection against global domination with Spain. When war with Spain in Cuba eventually came, Roosevelt immediately resigned his position with the Navy and went on to lead a regiment in two of the most famous battles of the war.

And it was, of course, in Cuba and on San Juan Hill where the myth of Teddy Roosevelt was finally and forever enshrined in people’s memory. One eyewitness described Roosevelt’s performance like this:

Perhaps a dozen of Roosevelt’s men had passed into the thicket before he did. Then he stepped across the wire himself, and, from that instant, became the most magnificent soldier I have ever seen. It was as if that barbed-wire strand had formed a dividing line in his life, and that when he stepped across it he left behind him in the bridle path all those unadmirable and conspicuous traits which have so often caused him to be justly criticized in civic life, and found on the other side of it, in that Cuban thicket, the coolness, the calm judgment, the towering heroism, which made him, perhaps, the most admired and best beloved of all Americans in Cuba.

Talk about writing for posterity. It’s hard for me to believe this is an accurate depiction of thoughts that took place during the battle, untinted by the knowledge of Roosevelt’s subsequently meteoric rise from retired Army colonel to the Governorship of New York, the Vice Presidency, and the Presidency.

But let that pass. What I don’t like most is Roosevelt’s own attitude about the war, his special role in it, and what he evidently felt it had released him to do.

For Roosevelt himself, the “crowded hour” atop San Juan Heights had been one of absolute fulfillment. “I would rather have led that charge…than served three terms in the U.S. Senate.” And he would rather die from yellow fever as a result than never to have charged at all. “Should the worst come to the worst I am quite content to go now and to leave my children at least an honorable name,” he told Henry Cabot Lodge. “And old man, if I do go, I do wish you would get that Medal of Honor for me anyhow, as I should awfully like the children to have it, and I think I earned it.”

With fulfillment came purgation. Bellicose poisons had been breeding in him since infancy. During recent years the strain had grown virulent, clouding his mind and souring the natural sweetness of his temperament. But at last he had had his bloodletting. He had fought a war and killed a man. He had “driven the Spaniard from the New World.” Theodore Roosevelt was at last, incongruously but wholeheartedly, a man of peace.

One can’t help but wonder how much of American history would have been different if Roosevelt could have found a less bloodthirsty way of proving his own manhood to his own satisfaction. Indeed, this equation of manliness and bravado seems cemented in who Roosevelt was.

…his tirades on the currently fashionable topic—became alarmingly harsh. “What matters a few broken bones to the glories of inter-collegiate sport?” he cried at a Harvard Club dinner. (Meanwhile, not far away in hospital, the latest victim of football savagery lay paralyzed for life.) He declared publicly that he would “disinherit” any son of his who refused to play college games. And in private, through clenched teeth: “I would rather one of them should die than have them grow up as a weakling.”

Of course, Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, was killed as an early Air Force pilot in World War I, charging off to prove his manhood in the same fashion his father had and, true to form, Roosevelt, although mortified with sadness, was as proud as he could be.

But despite these shortcomings, as the force of Roosevelt’s character shines through in Morris’ prose as well as it did in Brands’, it attains a certain and never-ending buoyancy that I do find appealing. This is from Morris’ prologue:

Theodore Roosevelt is a man of such overwhelming physical impact that he stamps himself immediately on the consciousness. “Do you know the two most wonderful things I have seen in your country?” says the English statesman John Morely. “Niagara Falls and the President of the United States, both great wonders of nature!” Their common quality, which photographs and paintings fail to capture, is a perpetual flow of torrential energy, a sense of motion even in stillness. Both are physically thrilling to be near.

And his bookishness is also something that cannot be failed to be mentioned. This extended passage concludes Morris’ rich prologue, which is constructed as a snapshot of Roosevelt’s activities on a particular day in his Presidency—New Year’s Day, 1907.

Later in the afternoon, the President, his wife, and five of his six children are seen cantering off for a ride in the country. Although reporters cannot follow him through the rest of the day, enough is known of Roosevelt’s domestic habits to predict its events with some accuracy. Returning for tea, which he will swig from an outsize cup, Roosevelt will take advantage of the holiday quietness of his dark-green office to do some writing. Besides being President of the United States, he is also a professional author. The Elkhorn Edition of The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, just published, comprises twenty-three volumes of history, natural history, biography, political philosophy, and essays. At least two of his books, The Naval War of 1812 and the four-volume Winning of the West, are considered definitive by serious historians. He is also the author of many scientific articles and literary reviews, not to mention an estimated total of fifty thousand letters—the latest twenty-five of which he dashed off this morning.

In the early evening the President will escort his family to No. 1733 N Street, where his elder sister Bamie will serve chocolate and whipped cream and champagne. After returning to the White House, the younger Roosevelts will be forcibly romped into bed, and the elder given permission to roller-skate for an hour in the basement. As quietness settles down over the Presidential apartments, Roosevelt and his wife will sit by the fire in the Prince of Wales Room and read to each other. At about ten o’clock the First Lady will rise and kiss her husband good night. He will continue to read in the light of a student lamp, peering through his one good eye (the other almost blind) at the book held inches from his nose, flicking over the pages at a rate of two or three a minute.

This is the time of day he loves best. “Reading with me is a disease.” He succumbs to it so totally—on the heaving deck of the Presidential yacht in the middle of a cyclone, between whistle-stops on a campaign trip, even while waiting for his carriage at the front door—that he cannot hear his own name being spoken. Nothing short of a thump on the back will regain his attention. Asked to summarize the book he has been leafing through with such apparent haste, he will do so in minute detail, often quoting the actual text.

The President manages to get through at least one book a day even when he is busy. Owen Wister has lent him a book shortly before a full evening’s entertainment at the White House, and been astonished to hear a complete review of it over breakfast. “Somewhere between six one evening and eight-thirty next morning, beside his dressing and his dinner and his guests and his sleep, he had read a volume of three-hundred-and-odd pages, and missed nothing of significance that it contained.

On evenings like this, when he has no official entertaining to do, Roosevelt will read two or three books entire. His appetite for titles is omnivorous and insatiable, ranging from the Histories of Thucydides to the Tales of Uncle Remus. Reading as he has explained to Trevelyan, is for him the purest imaginative therapy. In the past year alone, Roosevelt has devoured all the novels of Trollope, the complete works of De Quincey, a Life of Saint Patrick, the prose works of Milton and Tacitus (“until I could stand them no longer”), Samuel Dill’s Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, the seafaring yarns of Jacobs, the poetry of Scott, Poe, and Longfellow, a German novel called Jöhn Uhl, “a most satisfactorily lurid Man-eating Lion story,” and Foulke’s Life of Oliver P. Morton, not to mention at least five hundred other volumes on subjects ranging from tropical flora to Italian naval history.

The richness of Roosevelt’s knowledge causes a continuous process of cross-fertilization to go on in his mind. Standing with candle in hand at a baptismal service in Santa Fe, he reflects that his ancestors, and those of the child’s Mexican father, “doubtless fought in the Netherlands in the days of Alva and Parma.” Watching a group of American sailors joke about bedbugs in the Navy, he is reminded of the freedom of comment traditionally allowed to Roman legionnaires after battle. Trying to persuade Congress to adopt a system of simplified spelling in Government documents, he unself-consciously cites a treatise on the subject published in the time of Cromwell.

Tonight the President will bury himself, perhaps, in two volumes Mrs. Lodge has just sent him for review: Gissing’s Charles Dickens, A Critical Study, and The Greek View of Life, by Lowes Dickinson. He will be struck, as he peruses the latter, by interesting parallels between the Periclean attitude toward women and that of present-day Japan, and will make a mental note to write to Mrs. Lodge about it. He may also read, with alternate approval and disapproval, two articles on Mormonism in the latest issue of Outlook. A five-thousand-word essay on “The Ancient Irish Sagas” in this month’s Century magazine will not detain him long, since he is himself the author. His method of reading periodicals is somewhat unusual: each page, as he comes to the end of it, is torn out and thrown onto the floor. When both magazines have been thus reduced to a pile of crumpled paper, Roosevelt will leap from his rocking-chair and march down the corridor. Slowing his pace at the door of the presidential suite, he will tiptoe in, brush the famous teeth with only a moderate amount of noise, and pull on his blue-striped pajamas. Beside his pillow he will deposit a large, precautionary revolver. His last act, after turning down the lamp and climbing into bed, will be to unclip his pince-nez and rub the reddened bridge of his nose. Then, there being nothing further to do, Theodore Roosevelt will energetically fall asleep.

Theodore Roosevelt, for whatever faults I may wish to find in his political philosophy, was a reader and a writer—and he continually sought to expand his knowledge and understand his world. This devotion exposed him to a collection of ideas almost unique to someone of his day, teetering as he was on the cusp of the 20th century, and it gave him a kind of eternal optimism for the progress of the human species.

“At no period of the world’s history,” says Roosevelt, “has life been so full of interest, and of possibilities of excitement and enjoyment.” Science has revolutionized industry; Darwin has revolutionized thought; the globe’s waste spaces are being settled and seeded. A man of ambition has unique opportunities to build, explore, conquer, and transform. He can taste “the fearful joy” of grappling with large political and administrative problems. “If he is observant, he notes all around him the play of vaster forces than have ever before been exerted, working, half blindly, half under control, to bring about immeasurable results.”

It almost humanistic, this perspective, mixed as it is with Roosevelt’s own brand of individualism and imperialism. It seems clear to me that his constant reading and the consciousness expanding that came with it seasoned his views in a strange and forward-looking way, but unfortunately couldn’t quite redeem them.

During his years as a rancher, Roosevelt had acquired plenty of anti-Indian prejudice, strangley at odds with his enlightened attitude to blacks. But his research into the great Indian military heroes for The Winning of the West had done much to moderate this. Now, touring Pine Ridge and Crow Creek on behalf of the Great White Father, he looked on the red man not as an adversary but as a ward of the state, whom it was his duty to protect.

Roosevelt describes his view like this:

Here we have a group of beings who are not able to protect themselves; who are groping toward civilization out of the darkness of heredity and ingrained barbarism, and to whom, theoretically, we are supposed to be holding out a helping hand. They are utterly unable to protect themselves. They are credulous and easily duped by a bad agent, and they are susceptible of remarkable improvement when the agent is a good man, thoroughly efficient and thoroughly practical. To the Indians the workings of the spoils system at the agencies is a curse and an outrage…it must mean that the painful road leading upward from savagery is rendered infinitely more difficult and infinitely more stony for the poor feet trying to tread it.

This innate sense, that the American Indian represents the savage and barbarism, and that the European immigrant and their descendants represent civilization and progress, is ubiquitous in Roosevelt’s thinking, as it remains in the thinking of many today. His multi-volume epic, The Winning of the West, is absolutely rife with it—in fact, seems to depend on it for its narrative cohesion. In it, Roosevelt says things like:

During the past three centuries the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world’s waste spaces had been not only the most striking feature in the world’s history, but also the event of all others most far-reaching in its importance.

He assails the “warped, perverse, and silly morality” that would preserve the American continent “for the use of a few scattered savage tribes, whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beasts with whom they held joint ownership.”

And concludes that:

The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman. The rude, fierce settler who drove the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him. American and Indian, Boer and Zulu, Cossack and Tartar, New Zealander and Maori—in each case the victor, horrible though many of his deeds are, has laid deep the foundations for the future greatness of a mighty people…it is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant world races.

They say one should not judge historical figures by the standards of modern times, but I’m not sure that’s what I’m doing when I find myself recoiling at these words. There were plenty who criticized Roosevelt for these views in his own time.

But Morris, like the good biographer he is, stops short of casting judgment, and rather allows his subject to hang—for good or bad—by his own thoughts and deeds. The most profound chapter in the book is the 18th—called The Universe Spinner—which focuses more than most on Roosevelt’s worldview, juxtaposing it against his participation in the festivities associated with the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Morris writes:

Grover Cleveland’s adjectives on Opening Day—splendid, magnificent, grand, vast—were no different from those Roosevelt himself had lavished on America in all his books. The symbolism of the flags, and of the little Spanish admiral dwarfed by a three-hundred pound American President, was pleasing to him, but not revelatory. Nine years before, in his Fourth of July oration to the cowboys of Dickinson, he had hoped “to see the day when not a foot of American soil will be held by any European power,” and instinct told him that that day was fast approaching. When it came, it would bring out what some consider his best, what others consider the worst in him. This overriding impulse has been given many names: Jingoism, Nationalism, Imperialism, Chauvinism, even Fascism and Racism. Roosevelt preferred to use the simple and to him beautiful word Americanism.

Friday, September 4, 2009


“Getting angry is as bad as getting scared.”
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Robert Jordan)

Thursday, September 3, 2009


“Nobody knows what tribes we came from nor what our tribal inheritance is nor what the mysteries were in the woods where the people lived that we came from. All we know is that we do not know. We know nothing about what happens to us in the nights. When it happens in the day though, it is something.”
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Robert Jordan)