Friday, August 12, 2016

`Purely for Enjoyment'

If we can take the presidential candidates at their word, both admit to reading popular junk; specifically, contemporary popular junk. In this, of course, they reflect the reading habits of many of their countrymen, and that makes them democrats of a sort. It’s not a crime to read bad books, though one questions the prudence of advertising it. Annie Holmquist contrasts the reading tastes of the presidential hopefuls with Theodore Roosevelt’s. She cites a letter TR wrote to his friend Nicholas Murray Butler in 1903. Roosevelt was then president of the U.S.; Butler, of Columbia University. Roosevelt’s reading is conventional enough for a thoughtful, educated man of his time: the Greek dramatists and historians, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Gibbon, among others. Keep in mind his list reflects the preceding two years; that is, since the time he took office. Is there bravado here? Probably, but even if he is stretching the truth a bit, at least he has good taste in lies.     

On the portion of the list quoted by Holmquist, Roosevelt’s only sub-literary title, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, is, not coincidentally, contemporary, published the same year as Roosevelt’s letter, 1903. Those whose taste in books is largely for the new always skirt provinciality. Time, not fashion and convenience, is the only critic. Roosevelt lived in an age when people still trusted and revered tradition, and relied on its wisdom. He says in the letter to Butler: “The old books I read are not necessarily my favorites; it was largely a matter of chance. All the reading, of course, was purely for enjoyment and of the most desultory character.”

Let’s also remember that in 1904, Kermit Roosevelt, the president’s son, brought E.A. Robinson’s second poetry collection, The Children of the Night, to his father's attention. TR persuaded Charles Scribner’s Sons to republish the volume, and reviewed it himself in Outlook magazine. Like many others, Roosevelt got Robinson’s name wrong (not “Edward,” but “Edwin”), but he detected “an undoubted touch of genius” in the poems. Roosevelt saw to it that Robinson was given a sinecure at the New York Customs House, with a $2,000 annual stipend. In 1910, Robinson repaid his debt by dedicating his next collection of poems, The Town Down the River, to the former president. At the end of his letter to Butler, about half of which is his book list, Roosevelt concludes:

“There! that is the catalogue; about as interesting as Homer’s Catalogue of the Ships, and with about as much method in it as there seems in a superficial glance to be in an Irish stew. The great comfort, old man, is that you need not read it and that you need not answer this!”

1 comment:

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

I love EA Robinson. I regret that he is not read more frequently today, aside from a couple of anthology staples. I like the way he took the Victorian dramatic monologue form and twisted it and turned it and truncated it into a variety of brilliant sketches. "Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford" is a brilliant example as is "How Annandale Went Out," an early look at euthanasia.