Lewis L. Gould’s Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Creating the Modern First Lady is the latest title published in the Modern First Ladies series, which is edited by Gould. In this text, the author studies First Lady Edith Roosevelt, whose tenure at the White House marked the dawn of the twentieth century. As Gould suggests, Americans have long been enamored with Edith Roosevelt, and their praise accurately reflects some of her greatest achievements. Yet Gould’s research goes beyond the usual encomiums, revealing her controversial racial opinions, thereby highlighting the racism prevalent among many upper-class white Americans during the so-called Progressive Era. The author [End Page 306] describes Mrs. Roosevelt as a “many-sided and sometimes flawed human being,” insisting that her record merits further, more nuanced scholarly inquiry (p. 2). To that end, this text is a worthy beginning.
The book begins with a concise record of Edith Roosevelt’s younger years up to her marriage to Theodore Roosevelt. The bulk of the book focuses on Mrs. Roosevelt’s tenure as first lady and the period following her two terms in the White House. While Gould devotes a chapter specifically to Mrs. Roosevelt’s first year in the executive mansion, the other chapters outline various pursuits throughout her tenure as first lady. Mrs. Roosevelt set aside time for charity work, managed an extensive renovation of the White House, organized musical salons and other cultural events, and monitored family publicity, all while fulfilling the familial duties expected by her contemporaries. Gould found that Mrs. Roosevelt was a passionate, committed supporter of her husband as well as a savvy political advisor. Mrs. Roosevelt’s ability to maintain her hectic schedule and fulfill her duties was in part thanks to her social secretary Isabelle Hanger. Gould describes Hanger as “indispensable,” noting that she even acted as a “surrogate relative” to the Roosevelt brood (pp. 29-30).
To his credit, unlike other scholars, Gould does not end his analysis of Mrs. Roosevelt with her accomplishments. Instead, Gould examines material indicating that the first lady held white-supremacist beliefs. He describes her fervent admiration for a book by Francis Warrington Dawson, which “made the case against black suffrage and any kind of equality” for African Americans, and celebrated the creation of the Ku Klux Klan (p. 92). The author discusses Mrs. Roosevelt’s views on miscegenation, which she referred to as “unmitigated evil” (p. 93). Gould also analyzes the racial language in her surviving personal letters, including pejorative phrases such as a “touch of the tar brush” (p. 93) and “little nigs” (p. 95). Still, he hesitates to draw firm conclusions from her comments, given the predominance of demeaning racial language at that time. Stalwart fans of Edith Roosevelt may feel that Gould is unduly critical of their heroine, while others may argue that he is too forgiving regarding language on race. [End Page 307] Such are the perils of critical, analytical scholarship.
At times Gould succumbs to needless repetition. For example, the author mentions President Roosevelt’s 1909 hunting trip to Africa and the emotional impact of the separation on Mrs. Roosevelt four times. Repetition notwithstanding, Gould’s portrayal of this first lady provides a fresh, eye-opening account of both her personal and political lives. Gould’s work is a finely crafted portrait of a complicated woman who was, in many ways, a product of her time. Ultimately, Gould achieves his goal by casting Edith Roosevelt not as a “secular saint,” but as a complex human being who historians must examine further (p. 2). Historians will welcome this realistic, human assessment.
Bethany Johnson teaches history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is at work on an article on Twilight Sleep.