5 Questions about Remembering Theodore Roosevelt

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Michael Patrick Cullinane discusses his book, Remembering Theodore Roosevelt: Reminiscences of His Contemporaries which is reviewed in the latest issue of OHR.

Read Rachel B Lane’s review of Remembering Theodore Roosevelt: Reminiscences of His Contemporaries

What is your book about and why does it matter? 

Presidents leave a massive archival footprint and Theodore Roosevelt more than most. He wrote hundreds of thousands of letters in his lifetime, more than any other president. Historians have churned over these letters for generations, and it seemed as though all the relevant historical resources had been explored. It turns out, an obscure oral history collection of Roosevelt’s contemporaries had not yet been discovered. And it reveals much about his family, the political context, and his legacy. Recordings made in 1954 and 1955 collected the testimony of friends and family before their memories of the former president would vanish with their death. While some of the recordings were transcribed and deposited at Columbia University, six reels of magnetic tape languished in a safe at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace in New York City. The remnants of a larger oral history project, these recordings restore the voices of Roosevelt’s contemporaries. It also offers insights as to how oral history projects develop and how participants (interviewers and interviewees) cast shade on the past.

How does oral history contribute to your books?

Oral history is the heart and soul of the book. Each chapter includes two elements: an introduction to set the scene and a personal recollection by one of Roosevelt’s contemporaries. At the outset, I make the case that this collection has particular relevance for the field because it intersected with Allan Nevins’s Oral History Project at Columbia University. As one of the founders of the field, many of the interviewers came from staff on Nevins’s program or his graduate students. The Roosevelt Memorial Association who commissioned the interviews had a separate agenda to commemorate the centenary of Theodore Roosevelt’s birthday. Chairman of the Association Hermann Hagedorn knew Nevins, and established the link with the nascent oral history project at Columbia. Hagedorn also enrolled his daughter Mary in the university’s master’s program and paid her to transcribe and record the sessions. The administrative history of the project gives us a vantage into the maneuverings of this mid-century oral history project.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

This is the second oral history book I’ve edited, and I am a newcomer to the field. As a historian used to sources that have no tangible voice, listening to historical characters I know better on the page than in my ears has brought an added perspective. TR’s daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth spoke for three hours on one of the discovered reels. Her voice is like none other, at best compared to Katharine Hepburn speaking at high speed. What’s more, Mrs. Longworth’s reputation for an acerbic tongue comes through with greater clarity than published memoirs or edited reminiscences. Her recordings prove that the oral history project had removed sections of discussion, edited unsavory comments, and smoothed out grammatical errors – all of which diminished the spirit of Longworth’s statements. Working with the original audio maintains these intentions and intonations.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your books?

I never assume anyone will be interested in my books! I suspect people will come to Remembering Theodore Roosevelt for very different motives. The “Ted-Heads” as some Roosevelt scholars are known will scour the book for the details it sheds on the former president’s life and times. Oral historians and other historians interested in the mid-century historiographical turns will find the connection to Nevins or the consensus school of interest. Each chapter has its own allure, too. The reminiscences of Jesse Langdon, the last surviving Rough Rider, will appeal to scholars of the American West and overseas territories as he served in the Philippine American War. Henry Stimson’s decisions as a wartime Cabinet secretary features in the accounts of Trubee Davison. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt tells of her times with both houses of the Roosevelt family. And many more.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

Theodore Roosevelt is in the title, and naturally the epicenter of the oral histories, but there is much more to the stories being told. Tammany Hall and New York politics from the 1880s to the 1960s, Harvard University, the North Dakota Badlands, and smoke-filled rooms at party conventions all feature. The recordings offer a rich contextual story to the familiar biographies.