roosevelt, glasses, and boxing -- 7/6/20

Today's selection -- from The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. In 1872, the always-sickly thirteen-year-old Theodore Roosevelt got his first pair of glasses and took his first boxing lesson:

"In the summer of 1872, Teedie [13-year-old Theodore Roosevelt] acquired his first gun. It was, in his later description, 'a breech-loading, pin-fire double-hyphen barrel of French manufacture ... an excellent gun for a clumsy and often absent-minded boy. There was no spring to open it, and if the mechanism became rusty it could be opened with a brick without serious damage. When the cartridges stuck they could be removed in the same fashion. If they were loaded, however, the result was not always happy, and I tattooed myself with partially unburned grains of powder more than once.'

"Although Teedie blazed away determinedly at the fauna of the Lower Hudson Valley (the Roosevelts had taken a summer house at Dobbs Ferry), he found, to his bewilderment, that he could not hit anything. Even more puzzling was the fact that his friends, using the same gun, seemed to be able to bag the invisible: they fired into the, blue blur of the sky, or the green blur of the trees, whereupon specimens mysteriously dropped out of nowhere.

Theodore Roosevelt in rowing attire, Harvard.

"The truth was slow to dawn on him: 'One day they read aloud an advertisement in huge letters on a distant billboard, and I then realized that something was the matter, for not only was I unable to read the sign, but I could not even see the letters. I spoke of this to my father, and soon afterwards got my first pair of spectacles, which literally opened an entirely new world to me. I had no idea how beautiful the world was until I got those spectacles ... while much of my clumsiness and awkwardness was doubtless due to general characteristics, a good deal of it was due to the fact that I could not see, and yet was wholly ignorant that I was not seeing.'

"It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this event on the boy's maturing sensibilities. Through the miraculous little windows that now gripped his nose, the world leaped into pristine focus, disclosing an infinity of detail, of color, of nuance, and of movement just when the screen of his mind was at its most receptive. One of the best features of his adult descriptive writing -- an unsurpassed joy in things seen -- dates back to this moment; while another -- his abnormal sensitivity to sound -- is surely the legacy of the myopic years that came before.

"Another revelatory experience occurred later that summer, and it was considerably less pleasant. 'Having an attack of asthma, I was sent off by myself to Moosehead Lake. 'On the stage-coach ride thither, I encountered a couple of other boys who were about my own age, but very much more competent and also much mischievous ... They found that I was a foreordained and predestined victim, and industriously proceeded to make life miserable for me. The worst feature was that when I finally tried to fight them I discovered that either one singly could not only handle me with easy contempt, but handle me so as not to hurt me much and yet prevent my doing any damage whatever in return.' The humiliation forced him to realize that his two years of bodybuilding had achieved only token results. No matter how remarkable his progress might seem to himself, by the harsh standards of the world he was still a weakling. There and then he decided to join what he would later call 'the fellowship of the doers.' If he had exercised hard before, he must do so twice as hard now. He must also learn how to give and take punishment. 'Accordingly, with my father's hearty approval, I started to learn to box.'"



Edmund Morris


The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt


Modern Library


Copyright 1979 Edmund Morris


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