Kathleen Dalton: She explains why she was drawn to write about TR

Historians in the News

My search for Theodore Roosevelt did not begin with me standing as an admirer looking up in awe at his statue. Nor did it, indeed, start as an attempt to contradict the heroic stories so often told about him. That came later. I had been trained in my undergraduate days, as most historians were in the sixties, to dismiss him as a ridiculous jingo, an imperialist hardly worth knowing better. Leaders had betrayed us. It was not uncommon in that era, when psychology often served as a tool of politics, to start with a historical figure's misguided policies and then read character analysis backward. For example, if Nixon's lies about his Cambodian incursions reflected a failed policy then a biographer looked for the warping experiences of his youth that could explain the sorry and sick character development that led to wrong politics. In the early seventies as we read about the growth of the imperial presidency, Congress passed laws to limit the excesses of the Watergate and Viet Nam. At the same moment, biography served to show how the emperor wore no clothes. In fact, in that age of diminished hopes we had plenty of material to construct an array of portraits of presidents gone wrong.

But countertrends emerged out of the Watergate era, too. Had there been anything in the past we had seen with hazy vision? Schooled in the social history generation, I had a deep respect for the new scholarship being written about groups ignored and underrepresented. But at Johns Hopkins University I had also been trained by my literary biographer mentor, Kenneth S. Lynn, to write a certain type of biography, a la Leon Edel's search for the figure under the carpet. Lynn trained his students to conduct a Sherlock Holmes search for all the clues. He sought his subject's vulnerabilities so he could open a jugular vein with the biographer's knife, but on his good days he could also appreciate with a delicate sensitivity the"shabby genteel" roots of William Dean Howells and the quaint humor of Mark Twain. I hoped not to apprentice in the art of writer's blood lust, but I took to the Sherlock Holmes detective work. What mystery then, Doctor Watson, should I solve when I go into business for myself?

For me, the mystery I chose to solve emerged out of a common bond of illness. In the middle of graduate school I had a bout of what doctors called terminal cancer. Fortunately, they were wrong. After a year of tests and treatment doctors pronounced my illness curable, and I passed my doctoral exams. But insomnia followed as I searched for a dissertation topic. In the middle of one sleepless night, I picked up Richard Hofstadter's American Political Tradition, and read his clever essay about Theodore Roosevelt, a president whose early life had almost been extinguished by illness. Hofstadter's interpretation of TR struck me as a piece of caricature. Surely, I thought, there must be more to the Roosevelt story than high dungeon blustering, a political career punctuated often by lapses into expediency, and, lest we forget, plenty of good costume changes. My generation would not be quick to place TR on horseback or a pedestal. He must, instead, be a product of forces beyond his control, a man who belonged to a time, a class, a place. He needed to be reexamined for an inner life and for a more complete painting into a historic context.

So my Holmesian hunt was on.

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