Roosevelt’s Manliness and Civilization

by zunguzungu

From Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization — I book I admire enough to argue with — we have this account of what we might call Teddy Roosevelt’s nationalistic social Darwinism:

“It was not coincidental that Roosevelt’s advocacy of manly imperialism in the 1890’s was contemporaneous with a widespread cultural concern about effeminacy, overcivilization, and racial decadence…He warned the nation that over civilized effeminacy could threaten the race’s fitness to engage in the sort of race wars he had described in The Winning of the West…As he had shown in The Winning of the West, TR believed that manly racial competition determined which race was superior and deserved to control the earth’s resources. A race which grew decadent, then, was a race that had lost the masculine strength necessary to prevail in this Darwinistic racial struggle.”

But which race are “we,” American or white? Teddie uses phrases like “American  race” as well as white in an international sense, and for Bederman, the white race and “American civilization” are essentially the same thing, both engaged in a massive quasi-Darwinian war against savage races for resources and existence. And to an extent, I think she’s right. White American imperialists like Roosevelt often strategically elided the difference; they talked about whiteness as international when it suited them and Americanness as national when that suited them, and while the two narratives didn‘t quite perfectly overlap, what was the point in quibbling?

But of course, they are different things in important ways, and sometimes they very much did quibble. Especially in books like The Winning of the West, Roosevelt puts a great deal of emphasis on what will eventually, in the hands of Frederick Jackson Turner, get called American exceptionalism, the notion that the frontier experience makes Americans “exceptional” by comparison to Europe. In The Winning of the West, for example, what makes us us was not what we had in common with Europe but what we had that they didn’t, the melting pot narrative in which, as Bederman puts it, “the violence of this frontier race war [was] the mechanism which forges the various groups of white European  immigrants into one powerful, unified American race.” In such a narrative, in other words, we become Americans to the extent that we cease to be European. This was something this man with a Dutch name (which in NY of the late 19th C was a meaningful thing) took to heart, arguing many times over his career there was nothing worse than a hyphenated American, a jeremiad he delivered many times against Americans who persisted in looking back East towards Europe. For example, from one of my favorite moments of vintage TR, his 1894 speech True Americanism, we find him asserting that:

“those of our countrymen who do believe in American inferiority are always individuals who, however cultivated, have some organic weakness in their moral or mental make-up; and .the great mass of our people, who are robustly patriotic, and who have sound, healthy minds, are justified in regarding these feeble renegades with a half- impatient and half-amused scorn…it remains true that no one of our people can do any work really worth doing unless he does it primarily as an American. It is because certain classes of our people still retain their spirit of colonial dependence on, and exaggerated deference to, European opinion, that they fail to accomplish what they ought to.”

And also that

“…where immigrants, or the sons of immigrants, do not heartily and in good faith throw in their lot with us, but cling to the speech, the customs, the ways of life, and the habits of thought of the Old World which they have left, they thereby harm both themselves and us. If they remain alien elements, unassimilated, and with interests separate from ours, they are mere obstructions to the current of our national life, and, moreover, can get no good from it themselves. In fact, though we ourselves also suffer from their perversity, it is they who really suffer most.”

My favorite part of this speech, though, is this magnificent barely veiled broad-side against Henry James, whom he regarded as a real girlie man:

“[I]t is in those professions where our people have striven hardest to mold themselves in conventional European forms that they have succeeded least; and this holds true to the present day, the failure being of course most conspicuous where the man takes up his abode in Europe; where he becomes a second-rate European, because he is over-civilized, over-sensitive, over-refined, and has lost the hardihood and manly courage by which alone he can conquer in the keen struggle of our national life. Be it remembered, too, that this same being does not really become a European; he only ceases being an American, and becomes nothing. He throws away a great prize for the sake of a lesser one, and does not even get the lesser one…Thus it is with the undersized man of letters, who flees his country because he, with his delicate, effeminate sensitiveness, finds the conditions of life on this side of the water crude and raw; in other words, because he finds that he cannot play a man’s part among men, and so goes where he will be sheltered from the winds that harden stouter souls. This emigre may write graceful and pretty verses, essays, novels; but he will never do work to compare with that of his brother, who is strong enough to stand on his own feet, and do his work as an American.”

He is, of course, measuring Henry by reference to his old teacher at Harvard, William James. And though he and William went opposite directions after 1898, Roosevelt pretty much hated Henry from the get-go, elsewhere referring to him as a “little emasculated mass of inanity” and declaring that he “represents the last state of degradation. What a miserable little snob Henry James is. His polished, pointless, uninteresting stories about the upper social classes of England make one blush to think that he was once an American.” But what do you really think, Teedie?

My point is that while people like Roosevelt — who represents a whole class of American imperialists, people like Lodge, Hay, etc — might sometimes tactically vanish the distinction between American civilization and the white race, as Bederman does, they also sometimes have tremendous investments in thinking the living shit out of that difference, in measuring Americanness by the extent to which an American man resists the blandishments of Europe. For Roosevelt, there was a personal aspect to the specter of Henry James, of course; Roosevelt was not as WASPy as he would have liked to have been, spent a lot of time touring Europe while growing up, and when he first went to the NY assembly, his opponents made fun of him as a pretty-boy dandy, even referring to him as Oscar Wilde, apparently. Becoming as ridiculously American and manly as possible by going west and remaking himself as a cowboy was an effort to exorcise some real demons. But it was also part of a larger class project on the part of a particular part of the American political elites to re-think what “American” meant, to assert it as not so much imperial like Europe, but a particularly kind of imperial that was better than Europe‘s.

Turner will put a much finer point on it — explicitly making the exceptionalist argument as such — but Roosevelt tends to do something subtly more interesting (to me), and starts doing it as early as The Winning of the West: by arguing in that book that “the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world’s waste spaces has been not only the most striking feature in the world’s history, but also the event of all others the most far-reaching in importance” and focusing on an apparently singular “great world movement which began with the voyages of Columbus and Vasco de Gama, and which has gone on with ever-increasing rapidity and complexity until our time,” he interpellates the entirety of European expansion under the rubric of a the nascent Americanism which will eventually, he hopes, achieve pre-eminence within the larger white race. To put this in a much broader perspective, whereas Thomas Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia to try to convince a bunch of Europeans that Americans were really white (and not a bunch of weird Caribbean degenerate creoles), Roosevelt has stepped up the game, arguing that the onus is now on Americans to prove they aren’t European, with their manly whiteness cred hanging in the balance.

(All this is why — to stay on point — the Chicago born Edgar Rice Burroughs gives Tarzan both British parents and a title, and why after becoming a strong awesome cowboy badass in the jungle (his whiteness emerging from the crisis all the more sharp and clear), Tarzan gives all that up to go and be an  American).