The writer is an assistant professor of history and chair of the Department of American Culture and Literature at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.
On February 14, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt penned what may be the most famous diary entry in American history. “The light has gone out of my life,” TR wrote, referring to the death of his wife Alice Lee and mother Mittie on the same day. He then marked the page with a large black “X.” That diary entry reflected a crossroads for the 25 year old Roosevelt. Within months he would seemingly give up his political career—and the care of his newborn daughter Alice —for a life of riding and writing on his Dakota cattle ranches.
Roosevelt was an almost obsessive list maker and journal writer. His diaries of boyhood and youth chronicling the family’s grand tours of Europe and the Holy Land are well known, as is the journal Colonel Roosevelt kept during the Spanish-American War. TR also liked keeping track of the birds he observed and animals he shot. Even while president he took note of the birds observed around the White House. Almost all such diaries have been published since TR’s death in 1919.
The series of diaries Roosevelt kept as a young man, however—from age 19 to 28, and covering the years 1877-1886—have never before been published. This may result from several factors. Deciphering Roosevelt’s spelling, penmanship, and use of colloquial and specialized language is a daunting challenge. The diaries are not held in a single place. The first and last volumes are part of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College, and the other volumes are part of the Library of Congress’ Theodore Roosevelt Collection. Finally, Roosevelt was not a consistent diarist. The 1877 volume contains about fifty entries, while the volumes covering 1878-1881 contain more comprehensive entries. The diaries from 1882-1886 are once again sparser, with no diary at all for 1885. Moreover, Roosevelt had a tendency to rip out entries. This was particularly the case in his 1884 diary after the death of his first wife Alice mentioned above.
As a TR researcher, for years I wanted to scan, print, and bind the diaries into a single volume I could keep on my desk and refer to as an invaluable original source. This quickly transformed into a larger project of transcribing and annotating the diaries. Although all of TR’s letters and diaries will soon be offered online through the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in Dickinson, North Dakota, presenting such a wealth of material in difficult-to-discern handwriting and without editing limits the use of such material to experienced researchers. As the diaries covered only about 10 years of Roosevelt’s life, I desired to present them as a single, stand-alone volume that those unfamiliar with Roosevelt’s life and career might also find useful. This meant including large amounts of original writing: an “Introduction” and “Conclusion” that cover TR’s life before and after the period covered by the diaries, plus explanatory essays for each volume. The result is A Most Glorious Ride: The Diaries of Theodore Roosevelt, 1877-1886.
Elting Morison’s masterful The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt and the various editions of The Works of Theodore Roosevelt will likely remain the best published sources for the study of Theodore Roosevelt. Yet the diaries present an intimate look into TR’s life not easily matched. The volumes recount Roosevelt’s pursuit and winning of Alice Hathaway Lee. Heartbreaking entries cover the death of Roosevelt’s father, mother, and wife. In addition to TR’s personal life, the diaries offer a glimpse of Roosevelt’s start in New York politics, and his three terms in the New York State Assembly. Finally, the diaries also describe his first trips out West and a large part of his two-year western sojourn before returning to New York in 1886 after he became secretly engaged to Edith Kermit Carow, his childhood friend and adolescent love interest. Covering a key period in his life, the diaries reveal how Roosevelt transformed from a homesick and frequently ill adolescent at Harvard, to a strapping and confident young man. The hundreds of entries give great insight into the young man who would become America’s 26th president.