Michael Wolraich describes an epic political drama in Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels who Created Progressive Politics, released last month. In an interview with the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Wolraich discusses the writing process, political cartoons, and his favorite image of TR.
Q: What archival sources did you use during the course of writing this book?
A: I used some archival material, but most of it was secondary sources, published letters, and newspapers. With TR, there’s so much material, and all the letters are published in books. Where I went to the archives were for people like Bob La Follette who had been a little less well covered.
Q: La Follette emerges as one of the most interesting and dynamic people in your book. How did your thoughts on him evolve during the course of the research process?
A: He was hard to penetrate. Neither TR nor La Follette are particularly personally reflective. La Follette talked a lot about the issues he was fighting and strategizing for. One of the challenges was to try and peel back the onion a little bit. You can get to know him better by the things he was saying and what his wife was saying about him in her letters, because she was talking more expressively.
Q: Each chapter begins with a quote from Speaker of the House “Uncle Joe” Cannon. At what point in the writing process, did you know that you were going to start each chapter with a quote from him?
A: I find starting chapters with an epigraph helps to set the tone. Originally, I was thinking I would use quotes from different characters for each chapter. Uncle Joe just had the best quotations and I felt that there was something about having his “voice” at the beginning of each chapter. It enriched the story.
Q: During the course of writing the book, what directions did you resist following or what directions did you wish to pursue?
A: Good question. There weren’t so much directions as details that I would have loved to be able to invest more in – details and subjects. There are some themes that get short shrift, such as race relations and gender equality. These are issues I touch on here and there, but they are such important issues.
Q: When working with TR, there are so many different personas that people know about. Is there any particular photo or image that stands out to you?
A: I love the photo on the cover. I didn’t pick it out, the publisher did, but I definitely approve. Another photo that stands out to me doesn’t include TR but is a picture of the Big Four Senators: Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, John Spooner of Wisconsin, Orville Platt of Connecticut, William Allison of Iowa. These four guys ruled the senate for about two decades, through both of Roosevelt’s terms. The picture shows them sitting on chairs on the porch at Aldrich’s sprawling estate in Rhode Island. The photo captures an image of four friends enjoying an afternoon along the sea, but they were also the four most powerful men in the country at that time. All four of them together struck me as this quiet image of power.
Q: One of the things I enjoyed about your writing was your ability to set a scene. For example, the ice and fireworks during Taft’s inauguration (p. 155). How does your scene setting ability reflect your approach to writing history?
A: My theory is to reach a wide audience. I write for a popular audience, not necessarily for academics, so I need to bring people into the moment and the way I try to do that is with the details of the event. I want people to feel that they are there. I love that fireworks scene. It’s one of the first scenes that I wrote. My original idea was to start the book with Taft’s inauguration, all the pomp and circumstance, celebration, and blizzards. Reading about that and putting myself there, I tried to communicate that to the readers.
Q: I like the history in political cartoons that is featured on your website. How did looking at the cartoons enrich your writing process?
A: Thanks for checking it out. The cartoon adds color to my understanding of the era. You can read the serious accounts, both from the people of the time and the historians. It’s the wry perspective and the little humorous details that you get in a cartoon. They just create a much richer picture of how people thought back then. I loved looking at them as I was writing and I was excited to compile them on the website.
Wolraich’s book is available now in bookstores and online. For more political cartoons, please visit http://www.michaelwolraich.com/unreasonable-men/cartoons and the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library.
The Republican Mona Lisa
can he get away with it?, originally published 1911.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division