Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Children's Literature

By West, Mark I. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2010 | Go to article overview

Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Children's Literature


West, Mark I., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


No American president is more frequently associated with children's culture than Theodore Roosevelt for the simple reason that the omnipresent teddy bear is named after him. The story of how Roosevelt's name came to be associated with a toy stuffed animal has become a legend in the history of American toys. In 1 902, early in his presidency, Roosevelt spared the life of a bear during a hunting trip that he took in Mississippi. The Washington Star ran a cartoon depicting this act, and the cartoon was widely reprinted. The owner of a toyshop in Brooklyn came across this cartoon, and it inspired him to put a stuffed bear in his store window with a sign declaring it to be "Teddy's Bear." The name stuck, and teddy bears have been a fixture on the American toy scene ever since (O'Brien 78). Although Roosevelt never intended to lend his name to a children's plaything, it is fitting since he, like many of his contemporaries from the Progressive Era, had a very active interest in the literature and culture associated with children. As Ronald Cohen and other historians of childhood have noted, America witnessed a "widespread concern for and about childhood" (299) during the period between 1885 and 1915.

Roosevelt's fascination with children's literature can be traced back to his own childhood. Born in 1858, Roosevelt grew up in an affluent family in New York City. For the most part, he was privately educated until he entered Harvard in 1876. He grew up in a house filled with books, and his parents made sure that he always had reading material readily available. As Roosevelt later recounted in his autobiography, "I was given the chance to read books that they thought I ought to read, but if I did not like them I was then given some other good book that I did like" (15). The stories that he read as a boy left a lasting impression on him. He wrote his autobiography when he was in his mid-50s, but he was able to write in considerable detail about the books that he read during his childhood.

As a young boy, Roosevelt's favorite author was Mayne Reid, the author of numerous outdoor adventure books, such as The Boy Hunters: Adventures in Search of a White Buffalo. Although Roosevelt was very much a city boy, he liked reading Reid's action-packed stories set in the American wilderness (McCullough 115-16). Douglas Brinkley, the author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, argues that Roosevelt's life-long interest in the outdoors as well as his approach to writing about natural history stemmed from his childhood fascination with Reid's books. "Whenever Roosevelt wrote about the wilderness," Brinkley writes, "traces of Reid's hyper-romantic style are easily detectable. Although other naturalist writers captivated young Theodore's imagination . . . [Reid] remained his role model" (28).

Roosevelt's childhood interest in natural history led him to read works of nonfiction as well as Reid's adventure stories. During his boyhood, Roosevelt's favorite nonfiction book about natural history was J. G. Wood's Homes without Hands: Being a Description of the Habitations of Animals, Classed According to Their Principle of Construction. Although not intended for children, this scientific book greatly appealed to Roosevelt and inspired him to write an essay about ants when he was just eight years old (Brinkley 28).

In addition to giving him books, Roosevelt's parents provided him with a subscription to the children's magazine Our Young Folks, and he looked forward to getting every issue. In his autobiography, he wrote about how much he enjoyed this publication: "As a small boy I had Our Young Folks, which I then firmly believed to be the very best magazine in the world- a belief, I may add, which I have kept to this day unchanged, for I seriously doubt if any magazine for old or young has ever surpassed it" (15-16).

Listening to stories was also part of Roosevelt's childhood experience. …

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