“When you said, ‘Roosevelt for me!’ I jumped clear out of my chair! ….I am deeply moved by your decision and congratulate you. I’ve gotten so much inspiration from him that my admiration has grown into affection.—I am not worshipping him like a fool, but have based my belief in him upon constant reading of his speeches and writings for years back, and feel that he represents, on the whole, the kind of leader we need. A letter from him not long ago, in answer to a very brief appreciation of my own, convinced me of his value to me. I am stirred to stronger manhood every time I read it!”—N.C. Wyeth, letter of October 30, 1912 to friend and fellow artist Sidney Chase, from The Wyeths: The Letters of N. C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, edited by Betsy James Wyeth (1971)
When I was in elementary school, the illustrations of N.C. Wyeth lingered in my consciousness even more profoundly than the boys’ adventure books they accompanied: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow, The Mysterious Island. Now, following a tour of his studio (as well as the one used by his even more famous son, Andrew Wyeth) and a viewing of his work exhibited at the Brandywine River Museum while I was on vacation last week, I’ve grown as fascinated with the artist as with his work. And one of the things that endears him to me is that he was a huge fan of the 26th U.S. President.
I’m not terribly surprised that N.C. Wyeth took so strongly to Theodore Roosevelt. After all, the illustrator and the President were both larger-than-life figures: men given to all kinds of fun and games with their children, ardent bibliophiles who especially loved history and adventure stories, bespectacled “dudes” from the East who went to the West for a few years in their 20s in short-lived attempts to make livings. Wyeth had not only received, as his letter indicates, a letter from T.R., but as far back as seven years before, he had attended the President’s inauguration in D.C.
Wyeth was likely to be especially excited on this day a century ago. For the first time since the attempt on his life earlier in the month in Milwaukee, T.R. would be speaking at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The words of the former President (now seeking a third term, as the Progressive Party candidate) reverberate as much now as they did then. Would that as many now were inspired by this call as the likes of N.C. Wyeth was then:
“We must not sit supine and helpless. We must not permit the brutal selfishness of arrogance and the brutal selfishness of envy each to run unchecked its evil course. If we do so, then some day smoldering hatred will suddenly kindle into a consuming flame, and either we or our children will be called upon to face a crisis as grim as any which this Republic has ever seen.”
(Photo of Theodore Roosevelt campaigning for President in 1912 from the New York Times photo archive; you half expect him to say, “If my hat’s not in the ring, it’s about to be!”)