Over the summer I made the acquaintance of Margaret Porter Griffin. Ms. Griffin taught school for years and recently wrote a biography of Theodore Roosevelt that focuses on his life from ages eight to eighteen. The title tells you the book’s focus: The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt: The Determined Independent Study of a Boy Who Became America’s 26th President. Recently she sat down to answer some questions.
Margaret Porter Griffin: I taught about the Rough Riders in fifth grade history class, and the kids loved TR’s personality. Later I read Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough and had to find out more about him.
What, if anything, surprised you the most about him?
Probably the depth of his understanding of international affairs. It began when he was very young, while traveling through Europe with his family. They spent two complete years in Grand Tours before he turned fifteen. No president before or since has had such a firsthand reference for countries, their relationships and the psychology that goes on among them. Hence the “Big Stick” diplomacy. And this was one of the reasons he was able to facilitate the peace treaty between Japan and Russia.
What was the process of writing the book?
I’d had a fellowship several years ago and chose to study TR as a naturalist. One of the end products was to be a book. I wrote a very nice outline which I never used. At first I meant to write about his whole life. Too big. Then I thought I’d write about his whole life as a naturalist. Still too big. I noticed that more than one author commented about his independent learning. As an educator, I knew that the point where a student takes off and reads to learn is massively important. So I concentrated on the influence to his education of his family, his peers, and his driven interest in the natural world. I wrote one chapter, but with the consuming schedule of teaching, didn’t get any more done until I retired two years ago. Then I got to work using all the research I had in boxes. And I’ve developed a pretty good TR library, too.
Your book focuses on Roosevelt between the ages of eight and eighteen. You yourself taught for many years. Did you classroom experience give you any insights into Theodore?
I taught eleven-year-olds for about twenty-five years, and I think it’s a great age for launching into all sorts of things. I could see how Theodore took off in his independent learning with the encouragement of those around him. My experiences provided insights for my students they wouldn’t have normally had. I used him as the subject for town hall meetings – they saw how he overcame physical frailty as a child. They learned about primary sources from sites like the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, Sagamore Hill, the Elkhorn Ranch, and the Houghton Library at Harvard.
His mother and father influenced him in different ways. What were they like?
Theodore Roosevelt Sr. was a great man, a moral leader, but also a fun-loving father who entirely enjoyed his children. Martha Bulloch Roosevelt was just beautiful, and her family treated her like a porcelain doll. But she was probably one of the best storytellers south of the Mason-Dixon Line (or north, for that matter), where she was born. A friend who knew the Bulloch family thought TR got his personality from his mother. The period I wrote about was before he lost either of them, and it was a very nurturing time. His immediate and extended family was very important to him as he grew.
The library at the Birthplace is clearly a place where Teedie spent much of his time growing up. What were his biggest intellectual influences as a child? What did he read?
Theodore Sr. brought him books to read, important because he was near-sighted – he could only see things close to him well until he was thirteen and got eyeglasses. As a sick little boy sitting on that red, tasseled chair in the library, he loved learning about Livingstone’s travels in Africa and looking at the exotic animal etchings. He also said more than once that the magazine Our Young Folks was instrumental in his childhood, teaching him more than he learned during college. He had several reference books on birds by Elliott Coues and Spencer Baird, which he pretty much wore out. But like all Victorian youths, he read the classics and a lot of poetry. He loved heroes and wanted to be like them. He said he’d read Plutarch’s Lives a thousand times. (I haven’t read Plutarch’s Lives – have you?). He could remember everything he read, too, for all the years he lived. His father’s friends, including John Hay and the major social reformers in New York City, were also intellectual influences.
Theodore’s best friend as a teenager was Frederick Sturges Osborn, who lived on Park Avenue but also in the summers at his family’s country home in Garrison, New York. Fred’s father, William, was head of a railroad; his brother, Henry, later was president of the American Museum of Natural History. Theodore and Fred loved nature and birds and had a club with their friends – they really took themselves seriously. They had a constitution and bylaws, and read reports about their expeditions. Thanks to Theodore’s cousin Emlen Roosevelt’s notes in the Houghton Library at Harvard, we know about this “band of bird-lovers and adventurers,” as Henry called them. They took taxidermy lessons and stuffed their own birds. But Fred tragically drowned in the Hudson River when he was sixteen, and Theodore remembered him fondly in his autobiography. I really, really wanted to find Fred’s letters and notebooks, hoping his family might have saved them. I contacted their descendants, who still live in Garrison, and was able to get pictures and more information, but no notebooks. I did find out that his bird collection was donated to the AMNH like Theodore’s was.
Theodore’s story during his formative years was very much a Victorian tale. In what ways did he embody the era? Was he an anomaly in any way?
The Victorians were always classifying things, especially in the natural world. Theodore had one of the greatest bird collections around. Because of his ambitious and serious nature he seemed eccentric to others, but when they got to know him, they usually loved him.
What should people most know about Theodore Roosevelt?
He “kept his eyes on the stars and his feet on the ground,” as he told others to do.
Are there any ideas for future projects?
I recently started a blog, amazingbirdcollection.wordpress.com, that sorts through topics about TR I’ve come across during the past dozen years. I really like it, because it allows me to rethink some things and present them in a different way (coincidentally, that’s a great way to retain knowledge). I hope more people will understand more about our twenty-sixth president through it. I’ve transcribed 300 letters between my grandparents during World War I, before they were married. He was a captain in the Army and she a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. The letters are endearing, but at the same time present a picture of life in the early Twentieth Century that I think many will be interested in. I’m going to write a biography of John Joseph Pershing, General of the Armies. He’s one of the people I got off on a tangent studying when I was reading about TR.
The timing for a Pershing biography could not be better with the Great War Centennial underway. I should conclude by noting that teachers can receive the twenty page study guide you have prepared by contacting you through your blog.
(images/the top is the book’s cover and the bottom two whale-headed storks collected in Africa during the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Expedition immediately after he left the White House. Roosevelt had a lifelong interest in nature, especially birds.)