Two earlier Corners took up the question of biography and the Christian historian, with the focus on contrasting interpretations of the life of Theodore Roosevelt. A massive new biography suggests it's time to revisit the subject, with a twist.
"You're obviously right that the several topics I take up in the paper have been dealt with elsewhere," I wrote to a critic of an article I had submitted to a scholarly journal for publication. "The point of the piece was to bring that material together in a single place. To the extent that readers may not be inclined to look up small details in 60 or more secondary sources, I thought that it would be useful to present the scattered literature in a single paper. To my knowledge, no such paper exists, and it seems to me that synthesis has its value. In this way, the paper does something 'new.'"
As of this writing, whether that embattled article will survive remains an open question, but the "problem" that put its future in the balance is well known to graduate students and harried college professors: publish something "new" or perish—or, even worse, find yourself cast into the outer darkness inhabited by mere teachers, writers, and (most ghoulish) popularizers, a la Stephen Ambrose.
These thoughts came to me while reading Princeton University historian Christine Stansell's acidic review, published in the New Republic (Dec. 10, 2001), of Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris's best-selling sequel to his universally acclaimed biography of the young Theodore Roosevelt. Insofar as academic bile can be measured (gallons? oceans?), Stansell's piece is more subdued than a similar one by her colleague Sean Wilentz, who some months earlier, also in the New Republic, went out of his way to stick two full thumbs in the eyes of David McCullough for his supposedly ridiculous (and best-selling) biography of John Adams. But that's not to say that Stansell didn't end up with some gore on her own digits.
"[A] self-respecting reader will find it impossible to slog through the mass of detail that substitutes, in [Morris's] method, for historical comprehension," Stansell writes. Morris's text is "an account that is devoid of ideas, empty of analysis, and ignorant of social context." Theodore Rex is "public television on the page." Didn't get message? "It is entertainment with endnotes." Still not getting it? "Morris works to mesmerize his readers, or more precisely to pander to them, with a tiresome and profoundly anti-intellectual you-are-thereness." And so on—and on. And on!
As it happens, Stansell is right about most of this. Of course, one would think a person of her standing sufficiently bright not to make foolish generalizations about "any self-respecting reader," since she has no way of knowing much about the likes and interests of millions of American book buyers. (Speak for yourself, ma'am.) But she's right that Theodore Rex is TV on the page, the bookish equivalent of USA Today: it's narrative composed of snippets that can be read on the exercise bike at the gym. And, yes, while it's a bit much for Stansell to claim that the book is "devoid" of ideas, she's right: Morris is a wordsmith with few equals, but he's no big thinker.
So the point is made: as academics understand the concept, Theodore Rex isn't real history: it doesn't bring much "new" to the proverbial table and, for the most part, it doesn't try to sort out answers to enduring questions about Roosevelt's presidency. Morris is a historian mainly in the sense that he writes about things that happened in the past; but he isn't interested in analyzing the past in a detailed way or in asking hefty questions about how the past got us to where we are now. Morris is, first and foremost, a writer. One doubts that he intended to write a definitive biography; his first object was to write a good book. And while Theodore Rex doesn't match up—what could?—to Morris's Pulitzer Prize- and American Book Award-winning work of some two decades ago, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, it is still an informative and wonderfully engaging book.
So, yes, it's true that readers who go to Morris looking for insight into Roosevelt's involvement in the turn-of-the-century border dispute between Canada and the United States will have to settle for a few passing references that seem to suggest that the event was hardly noteworthy. But, in fact, this dispute, resolved as it was with Roosevelt's threatened big stick on the table, was a signal event in Canadian history in general and in the history of Canadian anti-Americanism in particular.
Elsewhere, Morris tells a fuller story of America's involvement in early twentieth-century Panama than appears in common history textbooks, but there is little indication here that Roosevelt's actions in Latin America helped to boost anti-American sentiment there as well. Nor does Morris's account make it crystal clear that Roosevelt's brokered peace between Russia and Japan meant that Korea was to be fed to the dogs. Having duly the Nobel Prize Roosevelt won for this troubled peace, Morris cautiously notes that "[f]or all the consensus that Roosevelt had proved himself a master diplomat, he could not boast, or even agree, that the world was demonstrably safer as a result of his efforts." That's an understatement. By the time Roosevelt left office in 1909 the stage for World War I was being set, and Roosevelt played an unwitting part in its construction.
But there is much that Morris's book does tell us. In these pages we discover that although—like many American presidents—Roosevelt paid politically correct deference to Christianity, there's little evidence he was a sincere believer. At least one Christian writer of a hyper-Reformed and neo-Confederate stripe, George Grant, has tried to make something of Roosevelt's claim to pride at his having Dutch Reformed roots, but Roosevelt was married the first time in a Unitarian church and his second wife was an Episcopalian.
During his time in office, Roosevelt attended Episcopal services, and like most imperialists of his day, he lightly punctuated his speech with biblical allusions that, long extracted from their original context, seemed to support the Social Darwinian outlook to which he clung so tightly: one of his favorite hymns was "The Son of God Goes Forth to War." But there is little evidence that he took the Bible half as seriously as did his even less outwardly pious predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, or as his trifle too sanctimonious successor, Woodrow Wilson. Theodore Roosevelt, Morris writes, "was not a speculative, nor a spiritual man."
But he was a figure of unbounded, manly energy—intellectual as well as physical. For those of us who never get done what we want to, the former president sets a daunting example. On one afternoon "Roosevelt took a new course of jujitsu, lunched with Buffalo Bill, and sent a long tirade against the demoralization of scientific historiography to his latest intellectual 'playmate,' Sir George Otto Trevelyan." The president's appetite for books in English, German, and French was voracious; his knowledge was vast.
Theodore Roosevelt was family man and a warrior. He was an animal-killing cowboy and a conservationist. He was also a keen and cunning politician. One day, Morris writes, Roosevelt thought he might go on a "bear hunt in the canebrakes of Louisiana to get himself in shape for dealing with the critters of the Sixtieth Congress." For all his faults, you've gotta love Theodore Roosevelt.
It was my good fortune to have read Morris's first volume on Roosevelt only a couple of years ago. So for me, the wait for this volume wasn't long. There is a third and final volume in the works. Let's hope that Morris follows Roosevelt's example, takes the bull by the horns, and gets that job done soon.
Preston Jones is a contributing editor to Books & Culture. His essay "History, Discernment, and the Christian Life" is published in Best Christian Writing, 2001 (HarperSanFrancisco).
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Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris is available at Amazon.com.
The April 2 issue of Christianity Today included an article by Preston Jones entitled "How To Serve Time: There is a Christian way to study the past without weakening the truth." In the article, Jones cites as a case in point the 1997 book by George Grant, Carry a Big Stick: The Uncommon Heroism of Theodore Roosevelt. On his Web site, Grant responded to Jones's article.
Previous Books and Culture Corners outlining the battle between Jones's and Grant's essays include:
History Bully | Christian scholars speak not-so-softly over a big sticking point: Theodore Roosevelt's faith. (June 4, 2001)
Saint Teddy? | Yes, Roosevelt paid the usual presidential respects to Christianity, but didn't show much explicit personal devotion to it. (June 11, 2001)
"I speak as one proud of his Holland, Huguenot, and Covenanting ancestors, and proud that the blood of that stark Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards flows in the veins of his children," Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography.
In Christianity Today's article about Christian recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize and unsung Christian peacemakers, Roosevelt was not listed among those "explicitly influenced by Christian principles."
Other articles by Preston Jones for Christianity Today and our sister publication Books & Culture include:
Endangered Species | 3,000 of the world's 6,000 languages are scheduled for extinction by the year 2100. (B&C, March/April 2001)
The Last Frontier? | "'If you see a moose, make sure you don't get between it and its calf.' This postprandial advice was offered to me by my mother-in-law, who knows something about moose … " (B&C, Jul/Aug 2000)
Aliens, A-Bombs, and Mastodons | Travels in Nevada and Colorado (B&C, Jan/Feb 2000)
California Haze | A review of Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future, An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, and Eyewitness To the American West (B&C, Sept/Oct 1999)
Lord of the Pets (B&C, Sept/Oct 1998)
My Farrakhan Obsession (B&C, Mar/Apr. 1998)
A Canadian with an Attitude | A profile of Canadian evangelicals that contrasts them with their counterparts in the American South. (CT, Apr. 7, 1997)
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. | A progress report. (Jan. 21, 2002)
Keeping the Dust on Your Boots | Remembering the Afghan refugees—and the church in Iran. (Jan. 14, 2002)
Coming Attractions | Books to watch for this year. (Jan. 7, 2002)
Books of the Year, Part 2 | After the top ten, here's the best of the rest. (Jan. 4, 2002)
Books of the Year | Part 1: The Top Ten (Dec. 17, 2001)
"Daddy, What Is the Soul?" | Does the church have an answer? (Dec. 10, 2001)
'We Now Know' | The boast of imperial science. (Dec. 3, 2001)
"24 Cow Clones, All Normal" … | Oh yes, and a few cloned human embryos that died. (Nov. 26, 2001)
"Discovering" Islam: The Intellectual Challenge | There's good reason to believe that there will be staying power to the West's belated "discovery" of Islam. (Nov. 19, 2001)
Disturbing the Peace | Is art always subversive when it's doing its job? (Nov. 12, 2001)
Play Ball | Baseball, leisure, and worship. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Is God a Body-Snatcher? | The restless intelligence of philosopher Peter van Inwagen. (Oct. 30, 2001)
"Science and the Spiritual Quest" | A place at the table for Christians, but at a price. (Oct. 22, 2001)
Beyond Belief? | Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's accounts of Islam presuppose the superiority of modern skepticism. (Oct. 15, 2001)
Covering Islam | Getting beyond the feel-good bromides. (Oct. 8, 2001)
Christian Scholarship … For What? | Academic speakers affirm the value of beholding God's creation. (Oct. 1, 2001)