April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
on the Writing of History
Few of our thirty-seven Presidents have been highly gifted with literary talent; of those few, fewer had the time or the patience to sit down and deliberately write books. Theodore Roosevelt, who was among the most gifted, also crammed into his “strenuous” life more nonliterary activity than perhaps any other President. Yet somehow, in a career of nearly forty years, he managed to produce more than twenty published books—histories, biographies, collections of essays, accounts of hunting expeditions, an autobiography. As on every other topic, Roosevelt had very definite ideas about writing, especially the writing of history. In the midst of a busy day at the White House in January, 1904, he took a few minutes to dictate a letter to British historian Sir George Trevelyan that included this passage:∗ From The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt , Vol. 3, Elting E. Morison, ed., Harvard University Press, 1951
We have a preposterous little organization called I think the American Historical Association, which, when I was just out of Harvard and very ignorant, I joined. [Time softened T.R.’s opinion: he himself became president of the association in 1912.] Fortunately I had enough good sense, or obstinacy, or something, to retain a subconscious belief that, inasmuch as books were meant to be read, good books ought to be interesting, and the best books capable in addition of giving one a lift upward in some direction. After a while it dawned on me that all of the conscientious, industrious, painstaking little pedants, who would have been useful people in a rather small way if they had understood their own limitations, had become because of their conceit distinctly noxious. They solemnly believed that if there were only enough of them, and that if they only collected enough facts of all kinds and sorts, there would cease to be any need hereafter for great writers, great thinkers. They looked for instance at Justin Winsor’s conglomerate narrative history of America—a book which is either literature or science in the sense in which a second rate cyclopedia is literature and science—as showing an “advance” upon Francis Parkman—Heaven save the mark! Each of them was a good enough day laborer, trundling his barrowful of bricks and worthy of his hire; as long as they saw themselves as they were they were worthy of all respect; but when they imagined that by their activity they rendered the work of an architect unnecessary they became both absurd and mischievous. Unfortunately with us it is these small men who do most of the historic teaching in the colleges. They have done much real harm in preventing the development of students who might have a large grasp of what history should really be. … They are honestly unconscious that all they are doing is to gather bricks and stones, and that whether their work will or will not amount to anything really worthy depends entirely upon whether or not some great master builder hereafter arrives who will be able to go over their material, to reject the immense majority of it, and out of what is left to fashion some edifice of majesty and beauty instinct with the truth that both charms and teaches. …
There—I have not been able to deny myself the pleasure of writing you this wholly irrelevant letter. … good by and good luck.
Faithfully yours,Theodore Roosevelt