This is the first in a two-part series in which Clay Jenkinson, Theodore Roosevelt Humanities Scholar, reflects on a recent visit to Theodore Roosevelt Island.
At the end of a long and eventful work trip to Washington, DC, Sharon Kilzer and I took time to visit Theodore Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River. We had gone to Washington to meet with Dr. James Hutson of the Library of Congress, among others, and with Dr. Mary Knill of the National Archives and Records Administration. We had also had the opportunity to do some genuine research in the archives of the Library of Congress. There is always something heady about being in Washington, DC—the expense, the access to government, the intense low-volume strategic conversations all around you in restaurants, bars, coffee shops, at breakfast, the ubiquity of statues, monuments, historical plaques, and memorials no matter which way you turn. We had arrived Wednesday night late. By Saturday morning we were tired and somewhat over-stimulated. Still, neither of us had ever been to TR Island. Theodore Roosevelt is our reason for being in Washington, to further the work of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. And we have a partnership with TR Island as part of the Centennial Challenge grant we received to digitize the Roosevelt papers at six National Park properties: Mount Rushmore, Sagamore Hill, the TR Birthplace in Manhattan, the Inaugural Site in Buffalo, NY, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, and TR Island.
So we took a taxi to the parking lot just off the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The parking lot was full of runners in colorful Spandex, stretching and sipping Starbucks with their trunks and car doors open. Sharon said they couldn’t all be Roosevelt lovers!
It was a crisp Saturday morning in January—not at all cold, but chilly enough that you wanted to wear a serious jacket and something to cover your ears. The quality of the light was exquisite. We decided not to bolt right for the memorial but to walk the perimeter of the island to get a feel for so pastoral a place in the heart of the sprawl and power of the District of Columbia. Runners zipped past us, some of them seriously training for something heroic. There were single runners, and runners in pairs, but most of the people who were on the trails were in runner’s groups or runner’s clubs. At one point, we stopped to take pictures of the Agraria restaurant, on the other side of the river at Georgetown, owned and managed by the North Dakota Farmers Union.
Finally some path took us into the heart of the island and we came upon the Roosevelt Memorial. Sharon had worked with the documents of TR Island as part of our digitization project. She had a much better sense of what to expect than I did. All I knew up to that moment was that there was an island in the Potomac, that there was a monumental statue of TR there, and that—as everyone who had been there had told me—it was a “low key place.” I was not prepared for what we saw.
The memorial is indeed tucked away in the middle of a wooded island, the kind of place Huck and Jim might have chosen to spend the night on the Mississippi River, but it is anything but low key. A large round concrete plaza, with ascending steps all around, and two fountains and parallel reflecting pools, forms the platform of the monument. In the middle, a statue of the mature TR, wearing a frock coat, leaning forward, speaking, with his right arm up over his head in an emphatic gesture of confidence and his left arm out away from his coat, indicative of the overwhelming energy of his convictions. The statue was created by the sculptor Paul Manship.
In my opinion, and Sharon’s too, the statue does not quite capture the essence of Roosevelt. It is clearly TR, but it doesn’t quite get the gesture right and the face does not have the muscularity and virility we associate with TR as President. It’s a little formidable, given its size and height. You don’t quite get the sense of TR “in the arena,” as he loved to put it, but looking out over the arena in which others are engaged in the glory of work and the joy of living. The feel is a little formal and detached.
Still, it’s splendid.
But what really struck us as perfect were the four plinths that flank the TR statue. They are tall concrete slabs, thin, each with a series of short TR quotations. The monoliths are appropriately titled Nature, Manhood, Youth, and The State. Although we could not immediately identify the source of each of the quotations, we recognized them to be quintessential TR and, together, they covered much of the territory of his life and work. Selfishly, we looked for any statements about the West or his time in Dakota Territory! No such luck. Nor was there any reference to family—which surely is as much the heart of Roosevelt’s world as reform or Panama or the uses of a strong national government.
The quotations under the title The State spoke most directly. I was struck by, “A GREAT DEMOCRACY has got to be progressive or it will soon cease to be great or a democracy.” Sharon was most taken by TR’s statement, “Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive.” I took photos of the plinth from every angle.
All photos courtesy of Clay Jenkinson