Thursday, August 03, 2017

`Profit Was a By-Product of the Pleasure'

“President [Theodore] Roosevelt was an omnivorous reader. The legend holds that he read a book a day, and while that might be an exaggeration, it seems unlikely that any president in the century since he held the office read as much as he, or in such a wide variety of fields, including poetry.”

This comes not from a biography of the twenty-sixth president of the United States but from Scott Donaldson’s Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life (2007). Donaldson is retelling the familiar story of how, in 1904, Kermit Roosevelt, the president’s son, brought Robinson’s second poetry collection, The Children of the Night (1897), to his father’s attention. TR persuaded Charles Scribner’s Sons to republish the volume, and reviewed it himself in Outlook magazine. Roosevelt got Robinson’s name wrong ("Edwin," not “Edward”), but he rightly detected “an undoubted touch of genius” in the poems. Roosevelt arranged for Robinson to receive a sinecure at the New York Customs House, with a $2,000 annual stipend. In 1910, Robinson repaid the debt by dedicating his next collection of poems, The Town Down the River, to the former president.

Roosevelt wasn’t being strictly altruistic. He was the only American president who, for significant periods, lived as a professional writer, earning much of his living with his pen. He understood the teetering balancing act the writing life might pose for a poet like Robinson. But Roosevelt also had good taste in literature (though he did favor the almost unreadable Jack London), and he had the interests of his country at heart. We might think of him as a literary patriot with an open mind (he loved Gibbon). The president writes about Robinson in a 1905 letter to James Hulme Canfield (Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches, Library of America, 2004): “. . . –I hunted him up, found he was having a very hard time, and put him in the Treasury Department. I think he will do his work all right, but I am free to say that he was put in less with a view to the good of the government service than with a view to helping American letters.”

In 1903, Roosevelt made his literary tastes explicit in a letter to the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler. He fills three pages with a list of the books he has read over the previous two years, including Herodotus, Plutarch, Dante, Shakespeare, Keats, Browning and Carlyle. At the end of his list, Roosevelt writes:

“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!”

Dedicated, unpretentious, pleasure-driven reading remains a theme across Roosevelt’s life, most memorably articulated in Theodore Roosevelt, an Autobiography (1913):  

“Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover's besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls `the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”

That characterizes nine-tenths of book chat in general and an even greater proportion of the blogosphere’s bookish precincts. Later in the same paragraph Roosevelt writes: “Personally, the books by which I have profited infinitely more than by any others have been those in which profit was a by-product of the pleasure; that is, I read them because I enjoyed them, because I liked reading them, and the profit came in as part of the enjoyment.”

Here he echoes Dr. Johnson, who is quoted by Boswell as saying: “. . . what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” And Roosevelt, bless him, found Dickens a confounding irritant. In a letter to his son Kermit in 1908 he writes:

“. . . he had himself a thick streak of maudlin sentimentality of the kind that, as somebody phrased it, `made him wallow naked in the pathetic.’ It always interests me about Dickens to think how much first-class work he did and how almost all of it was mixed up with every kind of cheap, second-rate matter. I am very fond of him. There are innumerable characters that he has created which symbolize vices, virtues, follies, and the like almost as well as the characters in Bunyan; and therefore I think the wise thing to do is simply to skip the bosh and twaddle and vulgarity and untruth, and get the benefit out of the rest.”

[Here is a marvelous portrait of Roosevelt the reader and dog lover, taken in Colorado in 1905.]

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