Theodore Roosevelt wanted to get elected President of the United States in 1912, but he had to settle for serving as President of the American Historical Association. Two days after Christmas that year (and only two and a half months after getting shot) he delivered his presidential address on “History as Literature.” Here, in the use of a couple clever metaphors, Roosevelt goes beyond a mere defense of the idea that history ought to have a literary quality to an explanation of what the relation is between a more literary history and the normal work of the historical profession, and why a profession without room for literary history is failing itself and civilization.
First, what does Roosevelt mean by “history as literature”? Frequently he defines literary history by using the short-hand of “readability,” which he thinks under assault from the increasingly professional guild of history-writers: “Many learned people seem to feel that the quality of readableness in a book is one which warrants suspicion.” And against them, he is in favor of readability for solid utilitarian reasons: “writings are useless unless they are read, and they can not be read unless they are readable.”
But he is after bigger game1 than merely clear style. Now, at one point, he says literature refers to “that which has permanent interest because both of its substance and its form, aside from the mere technical value that inheres in a special treatise for specialists.” That anticipatory phrase, “permanent interest,” begs the same question as its pithier successor: what is it that makes interest endure, let alone grow permanent?
Roosevelt confesses he doesn’t know, and outs himself here as a relativist: you can’t ever be sure what will last, and the accumulation of experience will make a parent’s monument into a child’s trivia. “It is hard to tell just what it is that is most important to know. The wisdom of one generation may seem the folly of the next.” Nevertheless, he thinks the literary endeavor still worthwhile.
So again, what does he think the literary endeavor involves? He does a bit better in this passage, where he neatly anticipates history in an age of computerized databases:
The great historian of the future will have easy access to innumerable facts patiently gathered by tens of thousands of investigators, whereas the great historian of the past had very few facts, and often had to gather most of these for himself. The great historian of the future can not be excused if he fails to draw on the vast storehouses of knowledge that have been accumulated, if he fails to profit by the wisdom and work of other men, which are now the common property of all intelligent men. He must use the instruments which the historians of the past did not have ready to hand.
So far so good, and so true, I think: as we tell our incoming graduate students, in an age of JSTOR you really must be able to write a reasonably comprehensive historiographical essay; in an age of the Historical Statistics of the United States online you really ought to know something about, oh, unemployment in the Great Depression.
But that is not all the historian of the future can do, Roosevelt says, oh no that is not all:
Yet even with these instruments, he can not do as good work as the best of the older historians unless he has vision and imagination, the power to grasp what is essential and to reject the infinitely more numerous non-essentials, the power to embody ghosts, to put flesh and blood on dry bones, to make dead men living before our eyes. In short, he must have the power to take the science of history and turn it into literature.
Here Roosevelt gives some more specific qualities that literary history should exhibit: vision and imagination, a sense of the essential, the ability to make of scant data a persuasive story. You might think—Roosevelt worries you might think—that this means he’s only interested in a “great man” vision of history emphasizing heroic deeds at exceptional moments, but he’s at pains to explain that he’s not: “a really great historian,” with “the highest imaginative and literary quality … will be able to interest us in the gray tints of the general landscape no less than in the flame hues of the jutting peaks…. The great historian must be able to paint for us the life of the plain people, the ordinary men and women, of the time of which he writes. He can do this only if he possesses the highest kind of imagination.”
For Roosevelt, the literary historian’s major talent is not for writing but for empathy. She must look at data, at potsherds, at memoirs, at the whole quantity of available evidence and then by an effort of imagination put herself in the place of people whose whole world has long passed. Only afterward, when reporting what she knows and where she has been in her imagination, does her ability to write well come into play.
And in fact for Roosevelt it is not only true that the essential ingredient of literary history is empathy, but also that the essential function of literary history is to inspire empathy. Only a history that has scope and literary quality can inspire us so that
Ours shall be the woe of burgher and peasant, and ours the stern joy when freemen triumph and justice comes into her own. The agony of the galley-slaves shall be ours, and the rejoicing when the wicked are brought low and the men of evil days have their reward.
Not just that we shall hear of these feelings, but that they shall become ours; literature makes them ours and lives by the motto “nihil humani a me alienum puto,” filling the essential “need of broad human sympathy, and the need of a lofty and generous emotion in [the] individual.”
Which is where his metaphors come in. First, the city of history. Twice, Roosevelt speaks of history as a city.
There are innumerable books, that is, innumerable volumes of printed matter between covers,2 which are excellent for their own purposes, but in which imagination would be as wholly out of place as in the blue prints of a sewer system…. But the vitally necessary sewer system does not take the place of the cathedral of Rheims or of the Parthenenon….
My only protest is against those who believe that the extension of the activities of the most competent mason and the most energetic contractor will supply the lack of great architects.
The engineers and the builders could make us a city, Roosevelt says, and it could be a city safe and clean to live in, with modern sanitation and all our material needs met: but would it be a city worth living in? Would we have anything to draw us out of ourselves, and into the lives of our fellows? Roosevelt fears not.
He also fears that not only the historical profession, but the whole nation, is heading in this direction, which is where his second metaphor comes in. The historical profession that despises history as literature is America in the Gilded Age, gripped by “the hard materialism of our age.” The only hope is something like Rooseveltian progressivism: “the strange capacity for lofty idealism which must be reckoned with by all who would understand the American character…. a peaceful people who … surely possess an emergency-standard far above mere money-getting.” That emergency-standard was of course the banner around which Roosevelt had tried that year to rally a new party to save the nation from the excesses of indulgent self-satisfaction. He now carried it into the more modest field of history-writing, where he hoped likewise to save the profession from itself.
1Of course he is. He’s Theodore Roosevelt.
2Yes, that is exceedingly snarky.