Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship
THE MAN of the MONTH
THIS volume of Mr. Wister’s is one of the most important documents that have yet appeared in the immense mass of Roosevelt literature. In it we are obviously dealing with Mr. Wister’s personal conception of that dynamic figure. Others might view the subject differently. But Mr. Wister works with such enthusiasm and such trained ability that the result is mightily convincing; it combines the skill of the artist with the warm tenderness of friendship. And to the personal contribution of the author we have to add the considerable number of Roosevelt’s own letters, always so frank, so genuine, and so direct in their outspokenness.
Coming from a very recent and widely extended reading of Roosevelt’s works and the various volumes that have been written about him, I do not know that Mr. Wister materially alters the established view of that many-sided spirit. But these vivid and illuminating pages richly amplify and emphasize the aspects that we may have recognized before, yet hardly with such clear-cut picturesqueness and piquancy.
To begin with, there is the magnificent energy, the restless, indomitable urge to be doing something, always doing something, which, with the creative, guiding intelligence behind it, led to doing such impressive and momentous things. It sometimes seems as if the life, the motive power, of three men, or five, were concentrated in that compact, vigorous body and that mightily conceiving and achieving soul. Action, action, beneficent action, well-directed action, but always action — that was the essence and really the sole meaning of life. What splendid expressions of this Mr. Wister reports for us: ‘I can’t know that I have the ability, but I do know that I have the will to carry out the task that has fallen to me.’ And again, ‘I have only a second-rate brain, but I think I have a capacity for action.’
With the tremendous energy went always an unfailing sincerity. The man said what he thought, said it so you understood it, said sometimes more than he thought and more than it was wise to say. But when he got through you knew where he stood, and politicians and diplomats were apt to be left gasping. Yet when they had digested the candor, if they could digest it, it did them good, and the plain people liked it.
Also, behind the energy and the sincerity there was pervading, noble idealism, an idealism sometimes a little vague and capable of double meanings, an idealism always keenly directed toward the practicable, as Roosevelt himself proudly insisted, but an idealism that had its roots in the love of the best things and the desire to disseminate these things just as widely as was humanly possible. Yet what I immensely appreciate in Mr. Wister is the keen insight that enables him to penetrate the weaker side of this idealism, which has escaped so many enthusiastic biographers. It rested on an optimism that was at times a little forced: ‘This look was the sign of frequent conflict between what he knew, and his wish not to know it, his determination to grasp his optimism tight, lest it escape him in the many darknesses that rose around him all along his way.’ And Mr. Wister most pertinently compares this willful optimism with a similar attitude in Emerson.
Mr. Wister’s portrayal of the more personal sides of Roosevelt’s character is as attractive as the public aspects. There is the admirable capacity for friendship. Roosevelt picked his friends where he found them, for the fundamental, durable qualities that appealed to him; and, chosen and placed in his heart, he did not forget them. Sometimes he was fooled by his affections and misled by them, sometimes they betrayed him, but it must be said that in the main they rewarded him well. ‘No storm ever hindered Roosevelt from remembering a friend.'
It is hardly necessary to observe that a very different view of Roosevelt might be obtained from other sources. Mr. Wister is frank in admitting this: ‘The saying that man is known by his friends must be rounded out by adding his enemies; without looking at both, you see him but in one dimension.’ There are those who assert that the energy was mainly bustle, the frankness a craving for publicity, the idealism merely convenient phrasing for a pushing desire to get ahead in the world. In both Mr. Wister and Roosevelt one feels a bitterness of partisanship, with regard to Woodrow Wilson and on other points, a partisanship perhaps easily explicable and even excusable when one returns to the cruel conditions of ten years ago, but not at all times easy to reconcile with a large and comprehending charity. When Roosevelt calls Wilson ‘an astute and conscienceless politician,’ one cannot help remembering that there were plenty who were quite ready to apply the same terms to Roosevelt himself.
Yet the total outcome of Mr. Wister’s portrayal is one that grasps you and fascinates you and tends to carry you away. The man may have had faults; you know he had faults; he knew it better than anyone. But he was a creature of astonishing, phenomenal, bewildering vitality and irresistible charm, and, says Mr. Wister, ’He was the one man I have known who never cast a shadow, but only sunlight.’