Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1401:
ROOSEVELT, REMINGTON, AND THE WEST

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1401.

Today, Roosevelt and Remington go West. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Teddy Roosevelt was born in 1858, and Frederic Remington in 1861. Roosevelt went to Harvard, Remington to Yale. Each went off to see the still-wild West after college. Each was deeply taken by the experience. Now I find three articles in the 1888 Century Magazine by 29-year-old Roosevelt and illustrated by 26-year-old Remington. They brim with the theater of ranching and cowboys.

Roosevelt studied ranching and then set up his own cattle ranch in North Dakota. Meanwhile, Remington traveled the West, drawing what he saw. These articles on ranching and cattle round-ups tell us what it was like. They shape the story of the American West as we've told it to each other ever since. Here are Tom Mix, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne -- all for the first time.

Roosevelt wrote just after the vicious winter of 1886-7 had killed his stock and sent him back to New York in defeat. But cowboys don't do self-pity, and Roosevelt is now a cowboy. He rhapsodizes about riding, roping, and six-guns. His cowboys have leather pants, yellow kerchiefs, spurs, and lassos. They boil their coffee beans over open fires and eat from a chuck wagon.

It's all there, first hand, just as we've read about it for 120 years since then. But these articles are also the work of two young men. Neither has, by any stretch, finished honing himself.

Roosevelt glibly proclaims that "a rancher's life is certainly a very pleasant one, albeit generally varied with plenty of hardship and anxiety." We're shown none of the human pathos within those hardships. Nor does Roosevelt let us forget that he's really a New Yorker who's learned the ropes: He tells about coming back from a search for a lost horse. Caught by a blizzard, he holes up in a hut with a cowboy from Texas. Roosevelt pulls out a small volume of Hamlet and reads to the cowboy while they wait out the storm. Afterward the cowboy says, "old Shakspere saveyed human natur' some," and Roosevelt is very pleased with himself.

Remington and Roosevelt converged ten years later in Cuba. Roosevelt had recruited his Rough Riders in Texas and gone off to fight the Spanish-American War. Remington had wanted to see real war all his life, and this was his chance. Roosevelt came back a hero. Remington came back changed by the horror of it.

The terribly introspective Henry Adams said that Roosevelt's restless combative energy was more than abnormal, and he showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter. [He] was pure act. Roosevelt played cowboy to the end, while Remington formed a new artistic language in his introspective night scenes.

Still, Roosevelt transmuted his primal affinity for action into a genuine love of the land. He left us with the National Park system and his face on Mount Rushmore. And young Remington left us with the study sketches for all the Western movies ever made.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


You may view all 33 of Remington's wonderful illustrations of Roosevelt's articles by pushing this button:

Roosevelt, T., In the Cattle Country (with 11 illustrations by F. Remington). The Century Magazine, Vol. 35, No. 4, February, 1888, pp. 495-510.

Roosevelt, T., The Home Ranch (with 12 illustrations by F. Remington). The Century Magazine, Vol. 35, No. 5, March, 1888, pp. 655-669.

Roosevelt, T., The Roundup (with 10 illustrations by F. Remington). The Century Magazine, Vol. 35, No. 6, April, 1888, pp. 849-867.

Adams, H., The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography. New York: The Heritage Press, 1918. (I am grateful to Houston attorney Miles Smith for pointing out Adams's comments about Roosevelt.)

For more on Roosevelt's ranching career see Episode 1211. For more on Remington see Episode 590. For more on Henry Adams see Episode 131.




The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.