To say Theodore Roosevelt was a writer is an understatement. He wrote constantly, almost as often as he read. He wrote during his time at Sagamore Hill, as President, as a Badlands rancher, as a Rough Rider, and an adventurer facing the unknown dangers of an uncharted Brazilian river.
And as a writer during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, he wrote according to the times which meant long, very long sentences and multi-syllabic words. This at first was hard for me to grasp. Having a background as a journalist and English teacher I have always followed the principle of “short and sweet”. If you can say it in two sentences instead of a paragraph, do it. But I must say I am getting captivated by the beauty of TR’s language as I delve into the seemingly never ending volume of documents in the digital library. Granted, a three--page thank you note might seem a bit much, but the words are so beautiful. They are filled with eloquence not heard of in our Twitter--limited, text--abbreviated world.
I have a list started on my desk with some of my favorites. The list includes expressive words and phrases like “harmonize matters,” “stirring up strife,” “offensive, repulsive and ungentlemanly,” “procure,” “imperil our liberties,” “thunders of menace,” and my favorite “scoundrelly.” Perhaps you can tell by my word selection what part of TR’s life I am currently working on? I try to use these words as often as possible in daily conservation, to see if I can bring them back into use. But daily happenings for which you can use “scoundrelly” don’t come up that often. Maybe that’s a good thing!
Even TR was sometimes hampered by word limits. In a letter to Ladies Home Journal editor, Edward William Bok, he writes that he is unsatisfied with his work because of the word limit by which he is constrained. He was allowed only 3,000 words and would have preferred at least 4,000. What might TR have thought of Twitter’s 140 character limit?
Ok, after a while the verbose language might make a person want to say, “Get to the point already!” but it does give me a start to see how limited our language usage has become. Of course we have more words and phrases than in TR’s time, but is replacing “vehemently” with a Grrr and an emoji an even trade?
But just as I praise the elaborate language and long sentences of TR, I am reminded of one of his darkest days. A dark day in which he described in 8 simple words with a large black X, “The light has gone out of my life
A true writer, TR, knew exactly how to convey a message.
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Personal diary of Theodore Roosevelt, 1884. 1884. Theodore Roosevelt Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.