One of the greatest rewards of my time spent cataloging the Theodore Roosevelt Center digital library was the opportunity to get to know our 26th president in portions of his life that are less familiar to most Americans. Like most, when I think of Roosevelt I see an image of a larger-than-life, bold, and big stick-carrying masculine icon. As I encountered letters from his personal life and younger years, I was incredibly pleased to find a warm, acutely intelligent, and humorous man who cared deeply for his friends, family, learning, and the honor in his work. While his historic image is as permanent and indestructible as the granite carving that places him on the face of Mt. Rushmore, his digital library allows users to see a hidden side of Roosevelt that it was a pleasure to discover.
The most striking object that provided me with this unexpected view inside Roosevelt’s rugged exterior was a letter sent from fourteen-year-old Theodore to his sister. Anna, or “Bamie” as her family called her in childhood, received the letter from her younger brother while he was studying in Dresden. The entire letter is written in a cheeky and humorous style, and begins as a checklist of his personal life. “Health: good. Lessons: good… Shoes: holey. Nails: dirty in consequence of having an ink bottle upset of them…” The rest of the letter is written as a series of drawings that depict comical scenes from his and his family’s life. The sketches contain a number of inside jokes that must have been dearly appreciated by Bamie, but sadly do not allow for a full understanding by readers in the decades that have passed.
My favorite of these sketches captures one of what was probably an endless series of humorous events in the life of a wild character like the young Roosevelt. At the time he wrote the letter, he was staying with a German family named Minkwitz. He tells Bamie about an incident in which he “much horrified the female portion of the Minkwitz Tribe” by bringing home a dead bat. The drawing of the women running in horror and lifting a broom in defense is not a fine, skillful work of art, but it is charming in a way that surprised and delighted me when I came across it. In his description of the scene, he even adds his speculation that the family thought he was a sorcerer; in reality, he was just being like any other troublemaking teenage boy.
Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Anna Roosevelt Cowles, September 21, 1873, MS Am 1454.48 (2), 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.
In the last page of the letter, he admits that he has no news to share, so instead he fills the page with some “illustrations on the Darwinian theory.” He draws a four-stage evolution of himself and two others as they transform from their human bodies to a stork, bull and monkey. He ends the letter to his older, mother-like sister, by scratching out the word son and replacing it with brother in saying, “Your brother, Tedie.” With that final jab at his sister, I finished my work with the letter having a newfound appreciation of the silliness that exists inside an American president and presumably many of our country’s “great men.” I started my time at the library with an academic knowledge of President Roosevelt, but I left with an intimate familiarity of a rascally little brother called Tedie.
Jess Durham is a second year masters student at the University of Michigan School of Information. Specializing in Archives & Records Management and Human-Computer Interaction, she will graduate in May 2014.