Monday, January 20, 2014

Theodore Roosevelt, author of forty books

From the December 2013/January 2014 copy of the Literary Review, page 6 in a review by Dominic Sandbrook of The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a joint biography of Theodore Roosevelt (TR) and William Howard Taft.
But TR was more than a cowboy. He was a remarkably clever and energetic man who admired Oliver Cromwell and somehow found the time to write forty books, including a widely praised four-volume history of the conquest of the West.
Though other sources quibble and argue that the number is somewhere between 35 and 38. If you argue about totals in that range, it is at least sufficient to acknowledge a prolific writer. Is there any other president who has written as many?

In looking for that answer (and it appears that Teddy Roosevelt is in fact the most prolific presidential writer), I came across another interesting one. Which Presidents were multilingual? From Wikipedia:
Of the 44 Presidents of the United States, at least half have displayed proficiency in speaking or writing a language other than English. Of these, only one, Martin Van Buren, learned English as his second language; his first language was Dutch. Four of the earliest Presidents were multilingual, with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson demonstrating proficiency in a number of foreign languages.

James A. Garfield not only knew Ancient Greek and Latin, but used his ambidexterity to write both at the same time. Both Roosevelts spoke French, and Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German. Herbert Hoover spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese. No modern (post-WWII) president has gained proficiency in a foreign language, although Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush displayed a limited ability in Spanish, whilst Bill Clinton had some knowledge of German.
Wow - fifty percent were proficient in another language? I would never have guessed it was that high, though apparently that might be a function my birth post WWII when the linguistic bar has been lowered to nil (none proficient).

Here is a record of their accomplishments summarized from the article.
John Adams - Learned Latin as a boy. Became fluent in French when posted there as Minister Plenipotentiary. And as a side note, what adventurous lives those men led. No quiet politicians they. Again from Wikipedia, recounting his first posting to France.
Adams sailed for France aboard the Continental Navy frigate Boston on February 15, 1778. The trip through winter storms was treacherous, with lightning injuring 19 sailors and killing one. Adams' ship was then pursued by but successfully evaded several British frigates in the mid-Atlantic. Toward the coast of Spain, Adams himself took up arms to help capture a heavily armed British merchantman ship, the Martha. Later, a cannon malfunction killed one and injured five more of Adams' crew before the ship finally arrived in France.
Thomas Jefferson - Ancient Greek, Latin, French, Italian and Spanish.

James Madison - Acient Greek, Latin, Hebrew. Translated several Latin works.

James Monroe - French

John Quincy Adams - French and Dutch fluently. Some Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian and German.

Martin Van Buren - Only American President for whom English was not his native language. Dutch was his mother tongue.

William Henry Harrison - Latin

John Tyler - Latin and Greek

James Polk - Greek and Latin

James Buchanan - Greek and Latin

Rutherford B. Hayes - Latin and Greek

James Garfield - Latin and Greek. "As the first ambidextrous president, Garfield entertained his friends by having them ask him questions, and then writing the answer in Latin with one hand while simultaneously answering in Greek with the other."

Chester A. Arthur - Latin and Greek

Theodore Roosevelt - French. Could read German and Italian

Herbert Hoover - Latin and Mandarin Chinese. Translated a Latin work on mining into English.

Franklin Roosevelt - French and German
I knew of course that Latin and Greek were mainstays of a gentlemen's education but I am not sure I realized the extent to which, if these fellows are representative, that they used it and maintained fluency through life.

So Thomas Jefferson takes the medal for most number of foreign languages with five. Martin van Buren is the only President for whom English was not his native tongue. Theodore Roosevelt was the most prolific author. And impressive in its own, somewhat sad, way is Andrew Johnson. His accomplishment? Learned to read at age sixteen. He married at sixteen and his wife help teach him.


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