Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Theodore Roosevelt Responds to a Lampooning Review. Or, “This Could Probably Never Happen Today, on the Internet”

GoodwinDK-BullyPulpitUKAnyone who has been reading this blog for a while, will undoubtedly have come across the fact that I have a strong interest in Theodore Roosevelt, his presidency and his time (academic and also personal interest). I am fascinated by the period of American history between (approx.) 1880 and the start of World War I.

At the moment, I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book – the exhaustively-researched, excellent The Bully Pulpit. The book is about Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and “the Golden Age of Journalism”. Today, I came across an amusing passage, which I thought I would share.

Throughout his life, Theodore Roosevelt, alongside his storied career in public service, was a prolific author – between 1882-1919, he would publish 45 books and collections (of essays and letters). One of his books, The Rough Riders, was a memoir of his war experiences on Cuba. Finley Peter Dunne was a writer and humourist from Chicago, who wrote the nationally syndicated “Mr. Dooley” satires and lampoons…

In the fall of 1899, a copy of The Rough Riders, Roosevelt’s wartime memoir, came across Dunne’s desk. “Mr. Dooley’s” book review in Harper’s Weekly mocked Roosevelt’s propensity for placing himself at the center of all action: “Tis Th’ Biography iv a Hero by Wan who Knows. Tis Th’ Darin’ Exploits iv a Brave Man be an Actual Eye Witness,” Mr. Dooley observed. “If I was him, I’d call th’ book, ‘Alone in Cubia.’” Three days after this satirical assessment amused readers across the country, Roosevelt wrote to Dunne: “I regret to state that my family and intimate friends are delighted with your review of my book. Now I think you owe me one; and I shall exact that when you next come east to pay me a visit. I have long wanted the chance of making your acquaintance.” (pp.257-8)

GoodwinDK-BullyPulpitUSThe full review is the first in Mr. Dooley’s Philosophy (which is available as a PDF online – pp.13-18). collected Dunne was clearly touched by Roosevelt’s letter, and in his reply to Roosevelt, accepting the invitation, he also said:

“... the way you took Mr. Dooley is a little discouraging. The number of persons who are worthwhile firing at is so small that as a matter of business I must regret the loss of one of them. Still if in losing a target I have, perhaps, gained a friend I am in after all.” (p.258)

Dunne never had to regret the loss of TR as a target, however. The reviewer continued to poke fun at TR (“the nation’s premiere target” as Goodwin calls him) for years to come, and the two remained friends throughout.

Today, when an author responds to a negative or critical review – especially on the internet – it never seems to go well for the author (see, for example, who-knows-how-many self-published authors lashing out at bloggers; or even the more recent, bizarre-and-quite-pathetic reaction to Ben Aaronovitch’s polite pointing out of a review’s factual misunderstanding). The above response and exchange between Dunne and Roosevelt… It could never happen today. Which is a real shame.

[I am currently reading The Bully Pulpit for review on Politics Reader. The book was provided by Goodwin’s UK publisher, Viking/Penguin. In the US, the book is published by Simon & Schuster.]

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