Object of the Month

The Mount Kenya book club: Theodore Roosevelt discusses politics and literature while on safari in East Africa in 1909.

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Henry Cabot Lodge and Nannie Davis Lodge, 10 September 1909

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Henry Cabot Lodge and Nannie Davis Lodge, 10 September 1909


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  • One of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s most interesting collections of presidential papers consists of personal letters from President Theodore Roosevelt to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, but their correspondence extends over a much longer period than Roosevelt’s seven-and-one-half-year presidency. From 1884 until just before Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the two friends and their spouses exchanged hundreds of letters, notes, telegrams, annotated copies of speeches, newspaper articles, and photographs. Because of Roosevelt’s wide travels, many of his letters to Lodge were written from exotic locales, but perhaps none from such a long distance—although largely about matters at home—as an eight-page letter written in pencil from “North of Mount Kenia” on 10 September 1909.

    The Great Safari

    Theodore Roosevelt's presidency ended in 1909. Although he had made a commitment not to seek a third term and had handpicked his successor, William Howard Taft, he left the White House with regret ("no other President ever enjoyed the Presidency as I did") and almost immediately embarked on a year-long safari in East Africa that was also a scientific expedition. Seven weeks after he left the White House he was in the field in Kenya and within two months the first of a series of articles he wrote documenting the expedition appeared in Scribner's Magazine.

    On 10 September 1909, four months into his African adventure, Roosevelt wrote to old friends Henry Cabot and Anna Cabot Mills Lodge, from "North of Mount Kenia," first providing "Cabot" (who represented Massachusetts in the senate) with his views on current American political affairs. Roosevelt preferred a "heavily progressive" inheritance tax to the proposed federal income tax. "Now for what may appeal to Nannie (Mrs. Lodge) also," he continued and in five more pages discussed what he was reading and writing, the books that he had brought with him to Africa, and the shortcomings of a list of books that Charles W. Eliot recommended for self-improvement—a set that would become the Harvard Classics—a 50-volume anthology of standard literature—when it was published the following year.

    Cabot and Nannie Lodge

    Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924) were unlikely friends. They had met at Harvard College, but their friendship really began in 1884, when they joined forces as young Republican Party reformers. In temperament they could not have been more different, but Roosevelt found in Lodge a mentor who would become a fiercely loyal political ally. When Roosevelt became president in 1901, the relative power of their political roles was reversed, but for 35 years "Cabot" Lodge was Theodore's closest friend.

    Roosevelt was fascinated by Lodge's wife, Anna Cabot Mills ("Nannie") Lodge (1850-1915). Nannie corrected Theodore when he misquoted Dickens or Shakespeare and joined in his high-spirited antics. Forthright and resolute, she could poke fun at TR and "Pinky"—her pet name for her husband. Theodore sometimes wrote to her directly and often wrote joint letters to the couple, both of whom he considered his best friends. He almost always ended letters to Cabot, including letters from the battlefields of Cuba, the White House—or Africa—with the line "Love to Nannie."

    The Pigskin Library

    A voracious reader and a prolific writer, Roosevelt equipped himself for his African expedition with a sturdily-bound traveling library that became known as the "Pigskin Library." In African Game Trails, a compilation of articles he wrote during his trip, he gave a picturesque account of reading from his famous library in Africa, "while resting under a tree at noon, perhaps beside the carcass of a beast I had killed, or else while waiting for camp to be pitched; and in either case it might be impossible to get water for washing. In consequence the books were stained with blood, sweat, gun-oil, dust, and ashes; ordinary bindings either vanished or became loathsome, whereas pigskin merely grew to look as a well-used saddle looks." In a letter written the same day that he wrote to Cabot and Nannie, he confessed to politician and author George Otto Trevelyan that he always had some volume in his pocket, being "too old now to be satisfied with a hunter's life." The Pigskin Library consisted of 60-odd volumes by 35 authors (and the Bible), but he recorded that he added about 25 more books to his collection during the course of the expedition.

    The Harvard Classics

    Sandwiched between his review of political affairs in the United States and a vivid account of the lion and elephant hunting that he and his son, Kermit, had undertaken, Roosevelt gave Nannie (and Cabot) a close analysis of his reading and book selection for the trip (he had discovered Shakespeare in middle age, and repeatedly returned to books that he loved), making an unfavorable comparison to "ex-President Eliot's" list of books. Charles W. Eliot had retired from the presidency of Harvard a month before Roosevelt left the presidency of the United States. Before he left office, Eliot declared in a speech to working men that a "five-foot shelf" of properly selected books could provide a young man with a good substitute for a liberal education. He was pressed to come up with such a list and the contents were published the following year as the Harvard Classics. The former presidents were not kindred spirits and TR found Eliot's list, as originally constructed, "slightly absurd," especially in its overarching claim to provide the reader with a comprehensive introduction to the humanities and science. Roosevelt pointed out that the absence of many works by classical authors, "not to speak of all poetry and novels" made "the list ridiculous as the list of books to 'give a man the essentials of a liberal education.'" As published, the Harvard Classics filled some of those gaps and a separate, 20-volume "second shelf" was devoted to fiction.

    In 1910, Roosevelt returned from Africa by way of Europe where he was greeted everywhere as a celebrity—the greatest celebrity of his day. Increasingly alienated by the conservative policies of his chosen successor, President William Howard Taft, he reentered Republican Party politics in 1912, putting him at odds with his friend and ally, Cabot Lodge, and then bolted from the party to run as a Progressive, "Bull Moose" candidate. Roosevelt and Lodge reconciled during the bitter election campaign that followed when TR was wounded in an assassination attempt. Cabot was able to step aside from politics and, with Nannie, express his concern and strong personal affection for Theodore. Illness and death darkened their last years: Nannie Lodge died suddenly in 1915; and Roosevelt in 1919. Cabot completed his edition of the Roosevelt-Lodge correspondence before following them in 1924.

    Editing the Roosevelt-Lodge Correspondence

    After Theodore Roosevelt's death, with the approval and assistance of his widow, Edith, Henry Cabot Lodge prepared an edition of his correspondence with his friend for publication. Illness slowed Lodge's work on the project and the two-volume set of letters was not published until 1925, six years after Roosevelt's death. Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge has been an extremely valuable source for Roosevelt biographers and also a source for later editions of Roosevelt's letters, but Roosevelt and Lodge often were very frank in their personal accounts, written for each other, of current events and the foibles of both political opponents and friends. For example, in his letter to the Lodges—as published—Roosevelt refers to "that impossible creature, Godkin," a reference to Edward Lawrence Godkin, a journalist and newspaper editor, who, as a founder of the Mugwumps, had broken with Roosevelt and Lodge over political reform back in the 1880s. What Roosevelt actually wrote was, "that scoundrelly liar and slanderous, envious blackguard, Godkin." Researchers should proceed with caution in using the published Roosevelt-Lodge correspondence or editions of Roosevelt letters based upon the 1925 Lodge edition.

    Roosevelt letters on display

    Through 9 January 2016, letters from the Roosevelt-Lodge correspondence, including a page from the 10 September 1909 letter displayed here, together with photographs and memorabilia, will be on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society in an exhibition titled, "Always Your Friend": Letters from Theodore Roosevelt to Henry Cabot Lodge, 1884-1918. The exhibition is open to the public without charge, Monday through Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM.

    Further reading

    Dalton, Katherine. Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

    Kirsch, Adam. "The 'Five-foot Shelf' Reconsidered." Harvard Magazine. November-December 2001.

    Morris, Edmund. Colonel Roosevelt. New York: Random House, 2010.

    Roosevelt, Theodore. African Game Trails: An Account of the African Wanderings of an American Hunter-Naturalist. New York: Syndicate Publishing Company, 1909.

    Appendix F of African Game Trails (p. 569-575) is a list and analysis of the "Pigskin Library" and a recapitulation of Roosevelt's reservations about "Mr. Eliot’s [book] list."

    ---. The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954. Selected and edited by Elting Morison. 8 vols.

    ---. Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, 1884-1918. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925. 2 vols.

    Wagenknecht, Edward. The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1958.