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F O R R E S T G. R O B I N S O N University of California, Santa Cruz The Roosevelt-Wister Connection: Some NotesontheWestandtheUses ofHistory “A nation’s greatness,” concluded Theodore Roosevelt in 1895, “lies in its possibility of achievement in the present, and nothing helps it more than the consciousness of achievement in the past.”1 Had a cynic chal­ lenged him to illustrate his platitude, Roosevelt would have responded briskly, and from personal experience. Had not his first book, The Naval War of 1812 (1882), pointed to the absolute necessity of military pre­ paredness, both in the past and (by emphatic implication) in the present? He might have traced to the example of Washington his own commit­ ment to strong central government, to Lincoln his preoccupation with national unity, and to Grant his ideals of firm resolution and manly leadership. And what of The Winning of the West (whose fourth and final volume he was presently attending to) ? Had America, on the threshold of international power in 1895, nothing to learn from her virile, self-reliant, democratic, warlike, conquesting Anglo-Saxon forebears? Indeed, Roosevelt the historian/politician might have concluded, our national greatness in the century ahead hinges directly (and quite liter­ ally) on our ability to revive the spirit and to duplicate the achievements of the American past. 1Theodore Roosevelt, “American Ideals,” in American Ideals (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1901), p. 14. 96 Western American Literature Roosevelt the historian ransacked the American record for personal models, moral exempla, heroes, villains (most notably that pacifistic Gaulomaniac, Jefferson-the-unready), and the glory of empire. Some of this he found, and some, inevitably, he fabricated; in either case, he “invented” it all. And then, boyishly, disarmingly, with beguiling earnestness, he applied the example of the past to the present and tried to make history out of history . Who can forget Roosevelt’s determination, soon after his arrival in the Dakota Bad Lands, to possess an authentic buckskin hunting shirt — described in the first volume of The Winning of the West as “the most picturesque and distinctively national dress ever worn in America”?2 Hermann Hagedorn, an altogether admiring biog­ rapher, could not. “There is no question that Roosevelt’s costume fascin­ ated him. It was, in fact, gorgeous beyond description.”3 “You would be amused to see me,” Roosevelt wrote to his fastidious friend, Henry Cabot Lodge, in my broad sombrero hat, fringed and beaded buckskin shirt, horse hide chaparajos or riding trousers, and cowhide boots, with braided bridle and silver spurs. I have always liked ‘horse and rifle,’ and being, like yourself, ‘ein echter Amerikaner,’ prefer that description of sport which needs a buckskin shirt to that whose votaries adopt the red coat. A buffalo is nobler game than an anise seed bag, the Anglomaniacs to the contrary notwith­ standing.4 So taken was Roosevelt with his virile American shirt that he decided to appear in it on the frontispiece of Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885). And so, according to Mr. Hagedorn, he solemnly dressed himself up in the buckskin shirt and the rest of the elaborate costume . . . and had himself photographed. There is something hilariously funny in the visible records of that performance. The imitation grass, not quite concealing the rug beneath, the painted background, the theatrical (slightly patched) 2Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West, 4 vols. (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889 [I-II], 1894 [III], 1896, [IV], I, 115). See also, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (New York: The Century Co., 1888), p. 81, where Roosevelt describes “the fringed tunic or hunting-shirt” as “the most picturesque and distinctively national dress ever worn in America.” 3Hermann Hagedorn, Roosevelt in the Bad Lands (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1921), p. 173. *The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, ed. Elting E. Morison et al., 8 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951), I, p. 77. Forrest G. Robinson 97 rocks against which the cowboy leans gazing dreamily across an imaginary prairie, the pose of the hunter with the rifle ready and finger on the trigger, grimly facing dangerous game which is not there — all...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 95-114
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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