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Growing Up on Paper

Mar 10, 2011

One of the most unique things about my job is that I get to look at each image as it comes into the digital library as I process it and prepare it for the next step, cataloging. We are currently receiving monthly shipments from Harvard College Library, home of the second largest Roosevelt collection in the world. While I can’t take the time to read each and every letter, I read sentences here and there, and notice certain characteristics of Roosevelt’s writing: the way he started a letter, the way he ended another; when he typed letters versus when he wrote them longhand. Over time, once you’ve looked at enough of them, one can start to see the president learn and mature.

His earliest letters to his sisters and mother are impeccable. Perfect handwriting, few mistakes. Almost as if he drafted them elsewhere before he sat down to write the copy his loved ones would receive. These letters are addressed to Dear Little Motherling and Dearest Bye, titles a son or brother would only want to use in personal letters. He writes to his mother about being homesick when he first goes to Harvard; to his sisters about his classes and the books he is reading.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his mother, 1875. MS Am 1834 (967), Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his mother, 1875. MS Am 1834 (967), Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.

The letters to his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, are very much a product of their time. Theodore’s tone is adoring and playful; he addresses Alice as if she were a precious child whom he misses terribly as he works at the New York State Legislature. The love letters seem quite sentimental by our standards and very different from Theodore Roosevelt’s public image and legacy. It is odd to think of the Rough Rider as a young man in love and yet there are dozens of letters dripping with Victorian sentimentalism and imagery.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his wife Alice, 1881. MS Am 1541.9 (93), Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his wife Alice, 1881. MS Am 1541.9 (93), Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.

As he gets older, busier, and more mature, Roosevelt’s handwriting becomes more rushed and less careful. During the White House years, he writes to the boys at Groton on White House stationery, These letters were often typewritten but he almost always took the time to handwrite a postscript to tell them about the weather in DC or something funny the children at home had done recently. When he writes to the younger children, his language is simplified and punctuated with drawings and funny stories. He addressed them with endearing nicknames. Dear Ethely-bye and Blessed Quenty-que receive letters with funny cartoons of their father’s adventures.

It is the letters from the latter part of his life that are my favorite though. As his boys go off to war, Roosevelt rarely types his letters to them. Instead, he puts in the effort to handwrite page after page about his pride at their accomplishments and to tell them how their loved ones are doing at home. To Archie he sends news of his new son; to Quentin, advice about how he should write to his fiancée Flora while away from her. To his daughters, he writes about his joy in his grandchildren and what is keeping him and Mother busy at Sagamore Hill. His letters to his sisters are more sober now, concern for his sons at the front outweighing his desire to see them distinguished in warfare. The few typewritten letters to the boys during the war came during his stays at the hospital at this time. Even then he still insisted on the handwritten farewell, an effort to make sure that while a secretary might have typed the words, he had meant them as much as ever.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his son, Archie who is wounded in France during World War I. MS 1541.7 (5), Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his son, Archie who is wounded in France during World War I. MS 1541.7 (5), Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.

Posted by Krystal Thomas on Mar 10, 2011 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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