I had the pleasure a couple of weeks ago to read my colleague Paul Rego’s new book on Teddy Roosevelt. Although I’m a little more critical of Roosevelt than Paul is, his book seems very timely, and does a good job of pointing our Roosevelt’s continuing relevance. Even this week John McCain morphed into a Roosevelt Republican taking on the Titans of Wall Street. Whether McCain was convincing in doing so is another matter, but it was in line with Paul’s insight that Roosevelt remains a touchstone figure for many contemporary presidents and presidential aspirants.
I thought I was supposed to do a full-blow review/critical response to Paul’s book at a reception in his honor, but I had the honor of introducing him instead. What follows are my meandering scribbles on Paul’s book, titled, by the way “American Ideal: Theodore Roosevelt’s Search for American Individualism.” These don’t quite amount to a review since they’re mostly notes for a talk, but I thought I’d post them here anyway.
In some respects, Paul’s book focuses on the irony of his subtitle: Roosevelt’s search for an American individualism. Though an intellectual biography, Paul seems to suggest that Roosevelt doesn’t arrive at settled substantive positions so much as he grapples mightily with antinomies of American thought, practice and culture—the most important of these being the split between the pluribus and the unum in the American psyche. Born out of the Enlightenment, American politics and culture has never rested easily with the earlier notion of an individual as being one member of a group. Instead, the individual and the society are necessarily in tension with one another, if not actively opposed to one another. On this view, the individual is society’s other, not matter how much we may say that society’s could not be conceived of without individuals and vice-versa. On this reading, a search for an American individualism is a quixotic quest—my reading, not Paul’s—since to be an American is to be a part of a collective, but one which only defines itself through the exaltation of the individual. Nevertheless, however impossible the project, the struggle to reconcile these opposing forces gives Roosevelts work much of its energy and contemporary relevance, no matter that he didn’t completely succeed in his quest.
I especially like Paul’s tracing of the opposition between progressivism and individualism. For one thing, those people in American literature who pay any attention to Roosevelt tend to emphasize his individualism, and so Paul’s attention to Roosevelt’s progressivism was enlightening. Moreover, I learned a lot in Paul’s argument that at the turn of the twentieth century, progressivism was imagining largely in collectivist terms and was in some respects seen as anti-individualism. The complexities involved suggest, as Paul explicitly attempts to do, that politics of the early 21st century continues to bear the marks of the discourses of a century ago. Liberals still rocket uneasily between individual empowerment and government regulation and intervention, while conservative ideals of the self-made man and the destructive energies of capitalism collide, sometimes violently with the conservative values of community, family, and tradition. If Roosevelt has not solved the problem of the pluribus and the unum, neither, really, have we.
Paul doesn’t really take up the gendered elements of Roosevelts thought, and I think they are important on various levels. Roosevelts view of individualism is, in my view, deeply masculine, verging on masculinist, and one reason for the popularity of his books lay in his idealization of masculine activities—war, hunting, camping, and the like—as a remedy for the feminizing forces of culture. Ironically, of course, many conservatives perceived the government as just such a ‘feminizing” force, wherein a man had to give up his manly individualism in favor of the will of the collective. The identification of progressivism with the feminization of American culture is everywhere in American literature at least, and finds it’s way even in to contemporary politics. Think, for instance, of the fairly popular conservative dismissal of the liberal “nanny state,” and the preference that men pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Paul argues that Roosevelt was willing to use the powers of the state in order to enable the possibility of individual achievement. Whether this is genius or hopeless contradictory may depend upon your politics, but I’m struck by the way in which this structure is represented in one of Roosevelt’s signature achievements—the establishment of the National Park system. One reason, though not the only one, that it was brought in to existence was so a place where men could test their mettle against the forces of nature could be preserved in a rapidly urbanizing society.
Paul recognizes Roosevelt’s racism and makes the argument that he must be understood as a man of his time, and I think Paul also successfully shows that Roosevelt’s understanding of individualism did not exclude African Americans, making room for those of the race who in some sense transcended the handicaps associated with racial oppression. To some degree, this is a common argument made about someone like Lincoln—who Roosevelt took as an ideal. By modern standards would clearly be understood as a racist, but his thinking was supple enough to imagine the possibility of transcending the racial categories of his days.
Nevertheless, I wonder if some of the issues surrounding race as well as gender don’t go closer to the root of the problem Roosevelt faced, which would be in how the individual is imagined as an individual. That is, the political conception of the individual in American history is always imagined in raceless terms; however, in our conceptualization of race until very recently, only white people can be raceless. To be black is to be raced; in other words to be inherently marked as identified with a collectivity. By contrast, whiteness is more usually understood as the sign of individualism, of being unbounded by tribe, history, tradition and society. In short, to be free. The great literary essay on this idea remains Achebe’s meditation of Heart of Darkness, where he rightly points out that the travails of Conrad’s white characters depend upon the facelessness and inarticulate jabbering of the black mass that makes them stand out as individuals. In other words, however much room we may make in our conceptualization of individualization for specific black people, this is very easily transmuted in to the understanding that others can become individuals by becoming just like me—in which case they are no longer clearly other in terms of race.
This having been said, I tend to agree with Paul that the structure of this thinking can’t be blamed on Roosevelt, since it is part of the structure of American thinking per se. He did not invent it, nor is it completely clear how he could have escaped it. Instead I think it points to the notion that perhaps the reason these issues cannot be reconciled is that they begin with a deeply flawed notion of what it means to be an individual, however attractive that ideal may continue to be.