A BULLY FATHER
JUNE 14, 1996
A Father's Day essay about a bully father by Roger Rosenblatt.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: There seems to be two kinds of excellent fathers. One is old, austere, dignified to the point of being arch, the kind of father Clarence Day was in "Life with Father." The other remains a kid all his life. Such fathers often have a lot of kids to create playmates for themselves. Theodore Roosevelt was of the second type of excellent father. He looked grown-up or really like a parody of a grown-up, with those little glasses and that great moustache, but everyone knew he was a boy in disguise.
When he settled at Sagamore Hill, his estate in Oyster Bay, Long Island, in 1886, he and his wife Edith produced in a very little time six children. For the rest of his life, which remarkably was not a long life, TR had around him a brood of pupils, acolytes, companions, and friends, one of whom he sadly outlived. He rode horseback with his kids, went hunting with them, taught them, cajoled them, praised them, served as their referee, loved them. And he wrote them letters, wonderful letters.
These letters of TR's have been collected in an engaging anthology by Joan Patterson Kerr. Called A Bully Father, it contains the correspondence that spans the years from 1898 to 1911. The letters are written to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Kermit Roosevelt, Ethyl Roosevelt Derby, Archibald Bullock Roosevelt, and Quentin Roosevelt, who was killed on patrol in France during World War I. The alert high spirits reside in their faces. They seemed to be born to play. Their chief playmate egged them on, and he was most encouraging in print, where he could make literature for them. He could hold his children still with letters. He could honor them with words. Letters from parents to children are often a suspect genre. They usually read like excuses to write instructive essays or as context for exculpation or as op ed pieces.
Dickens wrote to his son, Plom, "Never take a mean advantage of anyone in a transaction." Sir Walter Raleigh wrote to his boy, "Be not made an ass to carry the burden of other men." Nichola Sacco of Sacco and Vanzetti wrote to his 13-year-old son, Dante, "Help the weak ones that cry for help." Roosevelt's letters, on the other hand, are real letters. They talk to his children.
"Darling Ethel, of course you remember the story of the little prairie girl. I also associate it with you."
"Blessed Kermit, I was delighted to get your letter. I am sorry you are having such a hard time in mathematics but hope a couple of weeks will set you right."
Sometimes the letters get down on all fours,
"Dear Quenteyquee, the other Day when out riding, what should I see in the road ahead of me but a real br'er terrapin and br'er rabbit. They were sitting solemnly beside one another and looked just as if they had come out of a book. But as my horse walked along, br'er rabbit went lippity, lippity, lippity off into the bushes, and br'er terrapin drew in his head and legs until I passed."
The President of the United States wrote that letter from the White House on June 21, 1904. Sometimes a Roosevelt letter puts an arm around the child.
"Dear Ted, I have great confidence in you. I believe you have the ability and, above all, the energy, the perseverance, and the common sense to win out in civil life. That you will have some hard times and discouraging times, I have no question, but this is merely another way of saying that you will share the common lot."
You begin to understand Roosevelt's power over people, over everything from these letters. He seemed able to translate himself into every situation, into wars and children equally. One reason that he appeared to be the living embodiment of human enthusiasm is that he became what he loved--the hunt, the land, the country, his kids. Who but someone who loves being President would become a bull moose to get the job back? He cared intelligently about his kids. He knew the perils of growing up under a famous father, so to them he was not a famous father. He was their best admirer, their best story teller, their best friend. Here is a letter his kids wrote him in the form of a poem:
"Good morning, Mr. President, how are you today? We have obeyed your orders, we're very glad to say. We went around the White House a raisin' up a row, and if you want to know about it, then we'll tel you now. We went into the East Room, we went into the Red, and frightened everyone who was not in his bed. We want to have a piller fight with you this very night, and if you do not play with us, we'll squeeze you very tight."
I'm Roger Rosenblatt.