Making History

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David McCullough’s name will be familiar to long-time readers of this magazine, not only for his books, but because he was, for a time, one of its editors. He says, in fact, that what got him started “in the history business” was coming across a spectacular photograph of the official unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, showing it to the editors of AMERICAN HERITAGE , and being invited to write a short piece on the subject. He has written three widely acclaimed books, The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge , and The Path Between the Seas —the last of which won a National Book Award in 1978—and he has just published Mornings on Horseback (Simon & Schuster), a study of the first twenty-seven years of Theodore Roosevelt’s life. In his home on Martha’s Vineyard, he spoke with contributing editor Bernard A. Weisberger.

How do you get from two books on engineering to a work on Theodore Roosevelt?

Well, in doing the research for the Panama book I got to know a good deal about TR as a man and as a President, and I found him more complex and interesting than I’d ever realized—a man of many abilities but also, it seemed to me, many masks. He was theatrical and he knew it. Then, reading the basic biographies and the big collection of his letters edited by Elting Morison, I got tremendously interested in the life that preceded the Presidency. And finally, when I began to read the family letters collected at Harvard—not only his own, but those of his father, mother, brother, and sisters, I began to realize that here was an entry into a Victorian American family of a particular class and of a rather rarified background. If their name had been something other than Roosevelt, if Teddy had never become President, I would still have wanted to write the book because the most fun of all is to discover people who seem to have been ordinary but really were extraordinary.

What were some of the extraordinary things about TR’s family?

Well, his father, for one thing, was ahead of his time in coping affirmatively with a sickly child, which Theodore was. By giving him love, encouragement, and personal attention during his asthmatic attacks he literally saved his life. TR, as a little boy, adored his father and wanted not only to live for his sake but to grow up to be like him. And yet here’s an irony: this boy who thought “How can I ever live up to my father’s name?” in fact obliterates it. He becomes such a personage in his own right that no one remembers that there was an earlier Theodore Roosevelt. But maybe the father wouldn’t have minded that. He was a political reformer and a busy organizer of charitable and cultural undertakings, but he had little need for acclaim in order to prove to himself that he was a man. He could, in fact, be—in some ways—very feminine and nurturing toward children, his own and others. His friends said he had the tenderness of a woman.

What about the mother?

She’s been misunderstood. Because she was beautiful and from the South, the assumption has been made that she was stupid and frivolous, the clich233; of a Southern belle. But when I began reading her letters, I came to feel that Theodore’s love of words, his impulsiveness, his sense of heroics came directly from her. Like the father, she’s a little androgynous. She’s the one who loved “manly” stories about killing cougars in the woods and so forth.

And his brother and sisters?

I came to like his brother Elliott [Eleanor Roosevelt’s father] very much. He wasn’t very successful, but he was a very talented man and a very compassionate, charming fellow. Yet as you read about him, you know he’s not a survivor, and he’s not going to make it. It’s a tragedy common in history; a lot of good men fail. And the sisters, Anna, nicknamed “Bamie,” and Corinne, both very loving and supportive of TR, are unusual women, too, with abilities that would guarantee them very different lives if they were young women today. Alice Longworth [TR’s daughter] told me that if her Aunt Bamie had been born a man, she, not Theodore, would have been President.

Was that family closeness important to Theodore?

Yes. In fact, one family descendant told me that what other biographies—even the good ones—missed was an understanding of the degree to which Teddy was part of a clan. I think it’s very significant. They went everywhere in a swarm—the Adirondacks, Europe. What’s more, the Roosevelts were a clan within a clan—part of the old Knicker-bocker society of New York, a fascinating group, as close to real aristocracy as we ever had. And very short-lived.

What special effect did it have on TR?

I think it gave him terrific self-confidence and self-esteem, the antidotes to the self-centeredness and selfpity that the “me generation” wallows in. Those nineteenth-century people were far more impressed by the possibilities of life because if they came out of a family such as this one, they knew who they were. The family—at least in the case of the Roosevelts—gave them standards.

Why do you think that the clan aspect of his childhood has been overlooked?

Most biographers train the spotlight on their individual subject, and, in the course of the study, if that person changes and evolves, that’s what makes the story. The supporting characters, if you will, don’t change much at all. They are fixed entities. In Roosevelt’s case you usually have these other characters stamped out—the strong, supportive father, the decorative, indolent mother, the sweet, alcoholic brother, and so forth. They stay that way while TR grows. But it isn’t that way in life. They’re all changing. Elliott was not an alcoholic when he was twelve. The mother became a little eccentric and indolent later in life, but she wasn’t at all that way when Teddy was a little boy. So I have tried to show that all these people—all of them—are maturing. It’s been something of a challenge to keep all the balls in the air.

Speaking of changes in TR, you make a lot out of the fact that in 1884, unlike his fellow Republican silkstocking reformers, he supports the spoilsman James G. Blaine for President. Why is that so crucial?

I think it’s the turning point in his life. It isn’t simply party loyalty or expediency. By making that decision he embraces politics as a profession in the full sense of the word. He’s a regular. It’s a commitment. And it’s the first time he goes against his father, who is now dead. There he is turning away from people like Carl Schurz, with whom his father had joined in the anti-Grant Liberal Republican party in 1872. There’s no question his father wouldn’t have supported Blaine. So Theodore is really separating himself, saying, “I am a different person from my father.” And by the way, this is happening just after his first wife and his mother have died—within hours of each other—and the mother meant much, much more to him than he ever let on. So I see it as a point at which, aged twenty-five, he knows he’s a man.

 

You obviously found TR’s childhood asthma very significant. Should biographers know more medical history?

Absolutely. I think we should know much more about the impact of disease on history, and I personally find it fascinating. I did work on lockjaw and the bends for the bridge book, and on yellow fever and malaria for the canal book, and now on asthma for this one. One of the reasons asthma is so fascinating is that there’s so much that’s still not known about it that falls in the area of psychosomatic medicine. Why did TR have it? I think the answers may surprise some people. But whatever the reasons, the attacks did several things. His father would take him on long trips into the country to bring him out of an attack, and I think that gave him an even keener appreciation of the outdoors. They became associated with restorative forces, and with his father, and especially precious moments alone with his father. And it also impressed on him that life is literally a battle. It gave him a kind of power in the family, too. When the attacks came on, or when an attack threatened, it put him at center stage.

He needed a stage?

Yes, I think the lack of recognition would have killed him. You know the old joke that he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

Victorian families went in for a lot of amateur tableaux, skits, and charades, didn’t they?

Exactly, one was made conscious of having to “play one’s part.” In TR’s case there’s an interesting story about that. He says somewhere that he read a book as a child, in which someone said that if you act as if you’re brave, it will come to be a habit and you will be brave. Well, it’s in Pilgrims Progress —a man who “so bravely played the man he made the fiend to fly.” TR was moved by that book. Someone said that if you boiled him down, what would be left is the preacher militant, the Puritan warrior. He wanted to play the part of the good man, courageous and kind, who goes forth to clear the way for the innocent, like his father.

Is there any one thing that ties your books together?

I don’t want this to sound like a sermon, but they are all about subjects that are symbols of affirmation, and I suspect I will always write about that. The canal, the bridge, the handicapped little boy who overcomes—these are aspects of the best that’s in us as human beings.