Michael Canfield: Teddy Roosevelt in the Field

Hunter, Soldier, President, Naturalist, Rough Rider. In this episode of Houghton75, we speak with Michael Canfield, a lecturer in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard and author of Theodore Roosevelt in the Field, about the complex legacy of America’s 26th President.

Public Domain recordings from the Internet Archive

Podcast Transcript and Music Notes

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

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James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

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[background music: General Mix-up USA by Arthur Pryor’s Band. Recording from Internet Archive.]

JC: Hunter.

HF: Soldier.

JC: President.

HF: Naturalist.

JC: Rough Rider.

HF: There are many labels that can be applied to Theodore Roosevelt.

JC: We spoke with Michael Canfield, a lecturer in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard and author of Theodore Roosevelt in the Field, about the complex legacy of America’s 26th President.

HF: We begin with a diary Roosevelt kept while on safari in Africa, one of the collection of diaries and notes that Canfield has termed Roosevelt’s “field notes.”

Michael Canfield (MC): So this diary is a small pocket diary, similar to the ones that Roosevelt kept throughout his life, and it’s open to a page from June 1909 when he was on safari in Africa. In that moment he was basically hunting for himself and for the Smithsonian Institution. It was on a joint expedition that he had arranged with the Smithsonian, and over the days around this period in June he was hunting things like rhinos, lions, and wildebeest. One thing that you note in Roosevelt’s diaries and field notes is both his informal jottings as well as an attention to detail of specifics of distances for example, where he had shot an animal and he recorded how far the animal was away. He also recorded aspects of the animal once it was dead, the weight of the animal, possibly what was in its stomach. One of the most interesting things that you see on this page is these line drawings of the animals that he had collected along with often the bullet holes of where the bullets entered the body of the animal and sometimes even numbered the bullet holes saying “This was the first one, this was the second one, and this was the third one” which in some ways seemed gruesome to many but is the attention to detail of a naturalist.

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JC: In addition to the quick notes captured in the diary, Roosevelt also kept a second, more formal record of his adventures in Africa. But why would he write everything down twice?

HF: According to Professor Canfield, the second set of notes were the basis of articles later printed in Scribner’s Magazine and which eventually formed the book African Game Trails.

[background music: Poor Butterfly by Fritz Kreisler. Recording from Internet Archive.]

MC: This diary, the 1909 diary, was something he kept along the way when he was in the field, but he also had with him pads of paper that had carbon copies and he would write a second version of the events onto these pads of paper which were in fact the drafts of his Scribner’s articles. He would then send multiple copies out in different directions from his camp back to Robert Bridges, who was his editor at Scribner’s, so that then they could be prepared at Scribner’s. In essence, his field notes in Africa started with a diary like this where he would jot down notes about the animals and his experiences, and then at some point he would spend a few days writing into these pads of paper, taking those notes and expanding on them from his prodigious memory. He’s famous for having what is often referred to as a photographic memory, so he would remember tremendous amounts in his brain and write these chapters, which were effectively fully formed or almost so, onto these pads of paper, and then they would appear in Scribner’s a few months later.

Houghton has, actually, one of the copies where you can see him writing in cursive, but going through and making edits himself – crossing things out, inserting other passages, et cetera. I find it remarkable because it’s pretty good for a first draft. For someone who now, in 2016, writes with a word processor and types things in and constantly edits things, just to see him and imagine him in Africa writing on a pad of paper and producing something that’s almost a publishable article is pretty amazing.

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JC: These diaries and notebooks allow us to trace Roosevelt’s writing process from his experiences in the field through to his final publications.

HF: Roosevelt wrote multiple books detailing his expeditions across the world, including several about hunting and ranching in the American West.

JC: But what compelled him to travel to Africa? It couldn’t have been an easy journey in 1909.

[background music: The Lion Chase by Arthur Pryor’s Band. Recording from Internet Archive.]

MC: Roosevelt had been fascinated by Africa since he was a kid. The stories are that he had been dragging around Livingstone’s Missionary Travels [and Researches] in South Africa and other literature on the hunting and natural history of Africa since he was a kid, so he was fascinated by this as a child. He had gone to Africa, to Egypt and the Holy Lands, as a teen, but he didn’t do the big game stuff. For a long time, he had harbored this latent desire to go on a safari and see the giant charismatic megafauna of Africa and shoot them. Partly it was as a sportsman and a hunter, but also as a natural historian and as a disciple of the great naturalists of the time. There were multiple factors that motivated him to go to Africa.

He wanted to hunt. He wanted to play out the Livingstone experience. He wanted to study these animals, see them, understand them, study them, bring them back and build our museums. And part of it was to get away from the Presidency and Taft. He was pretty explicit about this. He wanted to make himself scarce. He planned it for a long time, over a year he was thinking about it and was really ready to get out of the White House. He was also following in the footsteps of a lot of other naturalists/hunters who were going to Africa in that period. Churchill, for example.

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There are many letters that went back and forth between Roosevelt and many African hunters but also Carl Akeley at The Field Museum and others as he tried to figure out all the details of the safari. What he would do, what kind of boots he would take, what kind of hat he would take, what kind of bullets he would use, what kind of guns. There are letters between Roosevelt and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company trying to figure out which guns he would take, and there was one point where he even was planning to have a shooting range in the White House. There’s a letter in which he says to Kermit, “thinking about testing out this gun in the attic, in the back hall.” It’s an amazing document because you have to imagine Roosevelt imagining setting up a shooting range inside because it was cold, but that’s where Roosevelt was at that time planning this. It was really important to him for so many reasons. It allowed him to connect with these people while he was President and live in the field in his mind while he was in the White House.

HF: A shooting range in the White House? I can only imagine what the First Lady had to say about that!

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JC: In addition to being an avid hunter, Roosevelt was deeply invested in natural conservation. As President, he saw the establishment of 5 new National Parks, the enabling of the American Antiquities Act, and the creation of the United States Forest Service. According to the National Parks Service, Roosevelt was responsible for the protection of approximately 230 million acres of public land during his Presidency.

HF: But hunting and conservation are often viewed as opposing activities. How did Roosevelt balance these two passions in his own life? According to Professor Canfield, his motivations were varied and were deeply rooted in the methods of natural history study available at the time.

[background music: Poor Butterfly by Fritz Kreisler. Recording from Internet Archive.]

MC: When Roosevelt was in Africa and when he collected the specimens that you see on this page, natural history study and public understanding of nature was very different. The ways in which one could understand what a lion looked like were more limited. Now we obviously have YouTube, we have beautiful images, and amazing documentary film, whereas in 1909 a student of lion, for example, might go to a place like the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology to see a mounted specimen. Then you would maybe see a few photographic images, but they were pretty basic at that time, and then a lot of drawings, sketches, and paintings of lion.

One thing I found very interesting about looking at Roosevelt, when he was a child he shot a lot of birds for collections, both for his fauna lists and his own knowledge. He would dissect them and mount some of them, but later in his life, he talked about in his writings and with people that they didn’t do that very much anymore. They didn’t shoot a lot of songbirds. That that wasn’t necessary. That that wasn’t appropriate. When he was going out to the Badlands for the first time to shoot a buffalo, that was that really small window when the buffalo were being exterminated and he knew that. He wanted to shoot a buffalo. And so that is a similar moment, but then Roosevelt went on and tried to save the bison. He created space for them and was integral in setting up some of that conservation.

So, clearly over the course of his life his ideas about these things changed, and were nuanced, and were motivated by different forces. There was a justification for having these things for the American museums, and having them make sure there was a record of these things. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of others and be the one who had shot those things. I think that’s pretty clear. It’s like with the buffalo or the bison – he wanted to have that experience directly, himself. So that was clearly a motivator.

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HF: Roosevelt wasn’t the only naturalist also known to engage in hunting. John James Audubon, for example, shot birds to use as models for his famous paintings. Although the two activities may seem contradictory, they are historically linked.

[background music: Medley Overture 1910 by Edison Concert Band. Recording from Internet Archive.]

JC: Aside from the many hunting stories associated with Roosevelt, there are several events from his life that have achieved an almost legendary status. One of these stories is of a 1912 Presidential campaign speech. On his way to an event in Milwaukee, Roosevelt was shot in the chest. Instead of proceeding directly to the hospital, he insisted on delivering his speech. It was this sort of determination and resilience that established Roosevelt as a paragon of manliness.

HF: But what drove him to keep going? Why would he act this way?

MC: I find it interesting, what you mentioned about him getting shot in Milwaukee. One could ask the question, “Why did he act the way he did at that time?” It’s a similar question of “Why did he shoot the white rhino? Why did he want to do that?” So “why” questions, as an evolutionary biologist, are interesting because we teach our students and talk a lot about “what” questions versus “why” questions in evolution. What happened? What is the evolutionary trajectory? How did things change? That’s a sort of question you can describe.

Why things changed is a much harder question to answer evolutionarily. Those are complicated things because you can tell stories about why animals have hair, why certain animals have hair, why certain animals have a particular adaptation. It’s easy to tell stories, but to be able to show that scientifically is really hard. Similarly with Roosevelt, why did he do any particular thing? Why, after he was shot in the chest by John Schrank, did he say “No, no. I’m going to go out and give this hour-long speech. You’re not going to tell me that I can’t.” People have tried to answer that question, “Why?” It’s probably a combination of factors. It’s not like there’s a single question. Was he mad? Was he delirious? Was he determined? Did he feel like he couldn’t look his Rough Riders or other hunters in the eye afterwards if he was able to and didn’t give that speech? I think that part of him felt like he was, if you’ll forgive the gendered term, a “man of the field,” someone who was of that perspective that you go out and do stuff, and if you’re shot you keep going. And that’s not just a natural historian. It’s also about the soldier on the battlefield, too. Part of that is that you keep going, and he experienced that, too. And I don’t see those things as completely separate from one another. I think underlying some of these motivations are similar inclinations.

[Excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1913 Address to the Boys’ Progressive League. 25:55-26:40 on the album History Speaks volume 1. Recording from Internet Archive.]

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JC: Roosevelt’s motivation to push himself and keep going was not confined to personal motivation. He also passed these ideals along to his family through various adventurous activities.

MC: He picked up this idea that one of the things you can do with your family is a point-to-point walk where you would start somewhere and decide where you’re going. And then anything in between, you would just figure out a way through it. If there’s a pond, you would swim across it, or a rock you would climb over it, but that was the way of going about it. To me, that’s also a revealing aspect of how he lived his life or how he thought about things. It wasn’t just about the particular challenge in the field, but even with his family he would set up these challenges.

This diary seems to me to be just one of many documents and artifacts that really show how he lived his life and how he wanted to connect and be out in the field, so to speak, or out in the outdoors, open spaces, away from the sort of theoretical confines of life. There’s a whole sort of academic discussion about this sort of moral manliness and what that came out of. Certainly at Harvard around the time he was here with Charles Eliot before et cetera, there was a lot of questions about where manliness came from, how it developed in the culture at that time, and now the particular iterations of that, how that’s appropriate or not are important academic questions. But clearly he is an emblem of that, and for some of these reasons he has become that.

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JC: We’d like to thank Professor Michael Canfield for joining us and sharing his research on Theodore Roosevelt and the concept of manliness with us today. President Roosevelt certainly was, and remains, a fascinating figure.

[background music: I’d Rather be with Teddy in the Jungle, by George J. Leavitt and Harry Meyer, 1909. Performed by The Bull Moose Band.]

HF: The piece you are listening to now is “I’d Rather be with Teddy in the Jungle,” a piece of music written and published during Roosevelt’s African safari. It’s performed by “The Bull Moose Band.” Thanks to them for the recording!

JC: The other songs you heard throughout the podcast were vintage recordings from the years surrounding Roosevelt’s African safari. These recordings, as well as the excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1913 Address to the Boys’ Progressive Party, were made available through the Internet Archive. Thanks to them for keeping these public domain recordings alive and accessible.

HF: Although the physical exhibition has now closed, you can still view this diary and the other fascinating items displayed in HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library in our online exhibition. Just go to houghton75.org and look under the Exhibitions menu.

JC: If you are in the Boston area, you can also come by the library and request to view this diary and other material from the collection in our reading room.

HF: For podcast transcripts and detailed music notes, visit houghton75.org/podcast.

JC: Thanks as always for listening, and whether you’re tuning in from near or far, we hope you’ll join us again for next week’s episode of Houghton75.

[music continues to end]