Imagine reading every communication someone ever wrote and selecting a small sample to represent their life and achievement. Now imagine doing that with Theodore Roosevelt’s voluminous writings. This daunting task was undertaken in the mid-20th century, initiated by the Roosevelt Memorial Association (now the Theodore Roosevelt Association). Under the direction of Hermann Hagedorn, the RMA engaged Elting E. Morison as editor and John Blum as associate editor of the Theodore Roosevelt Research Project. Morison was a highly respected American historian who would later write the biography of Henry Stimson, as well as the book Men, Machines and Modern Times. John Blum would publish The Republican Roosevelt, among other works. In 1948, however, they undertook to produce an eight-volume collection of Roosevelt’s letters. This edition, published over a span of several years in the 1950s, is to this day considered definitive. Many Roosevelt scholars have come to count on this work as the source from which they draw their understanding of TR.
The work of Morison and his colleagues is analogous in some ways to the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library project today, with some distinct differences. Morison’s editorial group reviewed Roosevelt letters found in various collections throughout the country, selected those they considered the most important, annotated them, and then published them in chronological order. Only letters written by Roosevelt were included (i.e. letters received by TR were not incorporated in the edition), and the letters selected were intended to be representative of TR’s “thought and action in all the major and many of the minor undertakings of his public and private life” (Introduction to The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt). Of the more than 150,000 letters Roosevelt is believed to have written, just 6,480 were selected for the edition.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where the Theodore Roosevelt Center is cataloging every letter Roosevelt sent or received along with photographs, film, audio, and ephemera pertaining to Roosevelt’s life. Mass digitization allows us to create a Roosevelt collection of which Morison could not have dreamed when he was working on the letter volumes.
Even though the digital revolution enables us to “publish” all of Roosevelt’s correspondence (this will take time), we understand that providing access to the letters Morison selected will be a great service to all students of Roosevelt, particularly during the transition period between scholarship based solely on books and physical manuscripts and the new scholarship that is being enabled by digitization. Morison’s judicious selection of Roosevelt’s letters provides one of the best windows into Roosevelt’s life and achievement. In order not to bury that corpus in the huge volume of letters that will eventually be available in the digital library, we have created an easy way for you to review the letters from the Morison edition online.
On the Theodore Roosevelt Center’s Public Profile, you will find collections titled Volumes 1 through 8, representing the Morison volumes. These collections contain the letters from each volume which we have cataloged to date (366 letters, as of the date of this writing), and the collections are being updated regularly as new items are cataloged. These collections will hold the original digital copies of the letters only, not the annotations included in the Morison volumes. We hope eventually to be able to provide at least some of Morison’s interpretive notes online so that even more people can benefit from the riches of his scholarly work. Stay tuned!
Image of Elting E. Morison from The Morison Brothers: A Unitarian Heritage, Harvard Square Library