William Roscoe Thayer
(Constable & Co.)
One might read the lives of all the Cabinet Ministers since the accession of Queen Victoria without realising that they had a body between them. To imagine any of the statues in Parliament Square running, climbing, or even in a state of nudity is not only impossible but also unseemly. The life, dignity, character of statesmen is centred in the head; the body is merely a stalk, smooth, black and inexpressive, whether attenuated or flowers a Gladstone, a Campbell-Bannerman, or a Chamberlain. But you have only to look at a photograph to see that he and his body are identical. The little round pugnacious head with the eyes screwed up as if charging an enemy is as much part of his body as a bull's head is part of his boly. Decency requires that a man's body shall be cut off from his head by collar, frock coat and trousers, but even under that disguise we still see, without any sense of unseemliness, bones, muscles, and flesh.
As Mr Thayer remarks in the course of his witty and sensible biography, very little is yet known of the interaction between mind and body. The mind in biography as in sculpture is treated as a separate and superior organ attached to an instrument which is, happily, becoming obsolete. If Cabinet Ministers exercise their bodies for a few hours it is only in order to clarify their brains.
But Roosevelt, though given by nature a sickly and asthmatic body which might have claimed the pampered life of a slave, always treated his body as a companion and equal. Indeed, his education until he left college was more the education of the body than of the mind. It was not until he had wrought a light weak frame into a tough thick body capable of immense endurance that his brain came into partnership.
If he used his brain it all it was not to think about books but about animals. He was taken on a tour through Europe as a small boy, but what did he see? Only that there are flocks of aquatic birds on the banks of the Nile, and that in Cairo there is a book by an English clergyman that tells you a great deal about them. In Venice he wrote in his diary,
We saw a palace of the doges. It looks like a palace you could be comfortable and snug in (which is not usual).
"The poor boys have been dragged off to the orful picture galery," wrote his little sister. Roosevelt had no artistic sense either as a boy or man, so that we are not able to consider the effect upon an artist of owning a body. But directly the body and mind came into partnership it was plain that for political purposes no combination is more powerful.
American politics in the 'eighties appear to an English reader as a rough-and-tumble shindy of public-house loafers in which the only serviceable weapon is a strong right arm. When Roosevelt said on leaving college:
I am going to try to help the cause of better government in New York; I don't exactly know how...
his ambition seemed to his friends "almost comic." Politics were not for "gentlemen." Jake Hess, the Republican Boss, and his heelers were equally amused. What business had a youth of the "kid glove and silk stocking set" among such as them? After a little experience of him they owned that he was "a good fellow" --- "a good mixer." Both friends and enemies were wont to expatiate upon his luck. Directly Roosevelt was safely shelved for life as Vice-President, President McKinley was shot dead. The greatest prize in the United States fell into his hands without an effort. That was the sort of thing that always happened to Roosevelt. But it is impossible to feel that his progress had anything accidental about it. Fortune, indeed, showed herself quite ready to suppress him had he been made of suppressible material. The year 1883 found him out of politics, alienated from many of his best friends, and bereaved of his wife. Intellectually and emotionally he was disillusioned and disheartened. Then flooded in to his rescue that strange passion for using muscles and breathing fresh air and throwing oneself naked upon nature and seeing what happens next which cannot be called intellectual but which is certainly not merely animal. He became a ranchman. His companions were uncivilised; his duties were those of a primitive man. He lived with horses and cattle and at any moment might have to shoot or be shot. The same thing happened with the desperadoes of Little Missouri as had happened with Boss Hess and his heelers. They began by despising his spectacles and ended by thinking him the same kind of man as themselves. When he was President of the United States a cowboy came up to him and said,
Mr President, I have been in jail a year for killing a gentleman.
How did you do it? asked the President, meaning to inquire as to the circumstances.
Thirty-eight on a forty-five frame replied the man, thinking that the only interest the President had was that of a comrade who wanted to know with what kind of tool the trick was done.
No other President, it is said, from Washington to Wilson would have drawn that answer.
Undoubtedly, it was not his fight against Trusts, or his action in ending the Russo-Japanese war, or any other political faith of his that gave him his popularity so much as the fact that his development was not limited to the organs of the brain. He was a good mixer. We have seen the effect upon bosses and cowboys. Now let us go to the other extreme and see how the President affected a highly cultivated Frenchman, the ambassador, M. Jusserand. Desired by his government to sketch some account of the President's temperament, M. Jusserand sent a dispatch describing "a promenade" in Washington.
I arrived at the White House punctually in afternoon dress and silk hat...The President wore knickerbockers, thick boots and soft felt hat, much worn...
On reaching the country, the President went pell-mell over the fields, following neither road nor path, always on, on, straight ahead! I was much winded, but I would not give in, nor ask him to slow up, because I had the honour of La Belle France at heart.
At last we came to the bank of a stream, rather wide and too deep to be forded. I sighed relief...But judge of my horror when I saw the President unbutton his clothes and heard him say, "We had better strip, so as not to wet our things in the creek." Then I, too, for the honour of France, removed my apparel, everything except my lavender kid gloves.
The President cast an inquiring look at these, but I quickly forestalled any remark by saying, "With your permission, Mr President, I will keep thse on, otherwise it would be embarrassing if we should meet ladies." And so we jumped into the water and swam across.
They came out on the other side firm friends. That is the result of taking off everything except one's lavender kid gloves.
It was the combination of brain and body that was remarkable --- for neither, separately, excelled immensely those of other men. Was it not the essence of his teaching that almost any man can achieve great things by getting the utmost use out of "the ordinary qualities that he shares with his fellows?" Put an ordinary man under a microscope and you see President Roosevelt. Unfortunately, many shadows are needed even in the crudest snapshot. Directly you are conscious of seing ordinary you cease to be ordinary. And, after all, can we call the President a perfect example of a successful man? Are we not conscious towards the end of his life of a lack of balance which destroys his value as a magnified specimen of the human race? The slaughter of animals played too large a part in his life. And why start exploring the Brazilian River of Doubt at the age of fifty-five? Nature, outraged, sent him back with a fever in his bones from which he died years before his time. So difficult is it at this late stage of civilisation for one and the same person to have both body and brain.
--- Virginia Woolf
from The Essays of Virginia Woolf
©1988, Harcourt Brace