THERE IS a story that goes with the painting of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent that hangs in the White House.
Sargent, it is said, had been waiting about the mansion for several days, hoping for a chance to see the president and talk to him about doing his portrait, when one morning the two met unexpectedly as Roosevelt was descending the stairway.
When might there be a convenient time for the president to pose for him, Sargent asked.
“Now!” said the president.
So there he is in the painting, standing at the foot of the stairs, his hand on the newel post. It is a great portrait, capturing more of the subtleties of the Roosevelt personality than any ever done of him.
And it’s a good story. Moments come and go, the president was telling the painter. Here is the time, seize it, do your best.
• • •
My earliest ambition was to be an artist. When I was ten or so, our art teacher at Linden School in Pittsburgh, Miss Mavis Bridgewater, demonstrated two-point perspective on the blackboard, and it seemed to me a miracle. I don’t think I would have been much more amazed had she caused her desk to levitate.
I began to draw and paint. At Yale later, though an English major, I studied under an artist named Dean Keller, who, because of the rather old-fashioned portraits he did (largely for the university of its prominent professors) and his insistence on understanding anatomy, was anathema in
a department then dominated by Joseph Albers, the German cubist known for his paintings of squares. I wanted to be a portrait painter.
As a writer I am still drawn to the human subject, to people and their stories, more often than to large current issues or any particular field of academic inquiry. The explorer interests me more than geography, the ichthyologist more than his fish, Theodore Roosevelt before, say, the Progressive Movement.
Nor have I ever been able to disassociate people or stories from their settings, the “background.” If character is destiny, so too, I believe, is terrain.
Seeing how the light falls in a marble room on Capitol Hill, or smelling the coal smoke in the air on a winter night in Pennsylvania, helps in making contact with those who were there before in other days. It’s a way to find them as fellow human beings, as necessary as the digging you do in libraries.
At times I’ve not known for certain whether I wanted to go ahead with a story until I have been where it happened.
“The sun was scorching hot and we should have had hats, but we dipped our hands in the water and the farther we went the cooler it got and especially when we hit the rapids,” I read now in a letter I wrote to my wife from Panama years ago, after a first reconnaissance of the Chagres River wilderness made in a dugout canoe with two young sons, two Cuna Indians, and an American hydrologist, Frank Robinson, who knew the names of every tree, most birds and insects, and all about the stupendous cycle of Panama rainfall. A day or two in such country goes far in stirring your sympathy and admiration for those intrepid souls, the pioneer builders, who came there in the last century, first to build a railroad.
Surroundings are essential to contemporary subjects no less. To spend time with someone like Miriam Rothschild in the fervently bizarre atmosphere of the family estate north of London, for example, or to follow David Plowden through the cornfields and small towns of Illinois, is for me the only way to see them clearly.
So the portraits here are often figures in a landscape.
Most of these essays were written for magazines. That they might one day be companion pieces in a book was a thought that never occurred at the time. Each was an individual undertaking. Several of them, for reasons personal or professional, had to be done on short notice, “Now,” as Roosevelt said. They were produced over a period of nearly twenty years, at very different times in my life, and about subjects as dissimilar as Alexander von Humboldt and Conrad Richter. Two of the stories, one set in
Panama, the other in the Badlands of North Dakota, resulted from research I was doing for books. Another represents a return to a subject I had already covered in a book, but about which I found I had some new things to say. It was written as a way of honoring the 100th birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge.
In the final section, I’ve included two speeches written for such different occasions as a college commencement in Vermont and the ceremonies celebrating the bicentennial of the United States Congress.
Yet I find my subjects are more closely connected than I knew. Reading these essays again, selecting and arranging them as a book, I am struck by how much they have in common. In my way, I see now, I have been writing about the same kinds of people all along. And I see, too, the extent to which they have revealed the world and times past for me, and things about myself, that I would not have known otherwise.
Because of the ichthyologist, the incomparable Louis Agassiz, I was introduced not only to his world of fish, but to his way of seeing.
“Look at your fish!” Agassiz admonished his students in what for me remains one of the most valuable of all lessons. “Look at your fish!” are the words of the small, framed reminder I’ve since kept by my desk: discoveries are as likely to be found in material already in hand, before your eyes, as anywhere.
Agassiz was one of the greatest of the great teachers of the nineteenth century. His influence reverberates down to our own day. But then it’s fair to say my subjects are nearly all teachers. They are writers, civil engineers, men and women of science, aviators, wives and mothers, politicians. One of them, Frederic Remington, is a painter and sculptor; another, Harry Caudill, is a small-town lawyer; David Plowden is a photographer. Yet each in his or her own way is teaching us to see, and to experience the exhilaration, or magic, or outrage, or understanding they feel from what they see.
“What a grand and solemn spectacle! The very sight of it renewed our strength,” writes Humboldt of the moment in 1802 when, exhausted, gasping for air at an elevation of nearly fifteen thousand feet, he and his partner, Aime Bonpland, catch a sudden glimpse through the clouds of the summit of Mount Chimborazo.
“My microscope is my marijuana,” says Miriam Rothschild, who in many ways is Humboldt’s present-day counterpart.
“I don’t think that the men at the top of those enormous corporations are wicked men,” observes Harry Caudill as he and I survey the ravages of strip mining in his native Letcher County, Kentucky. “But you know there’s
not a one of them that has been down here to see things with their own eyes, to see what is going on here. Not one. And yet the decisions they make have everything to do with how we live here.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe sees the evil of slavery and sees her duty plain. From the vantage point of the airplane, Charles and Anne Lindbergh and their fellow pioneer aviators, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Beryl Markham, begin to understand their place in the large order of things.
• • •
Finding my subjects over the years has been mostly a process of one thing leading to another. Reading about Henry Ward Beecher, as a way to understanding what life was like on Brooklyn Heights at the time the Brooklyn Bridge was being built, I came upon his sister Harriet, as described in Constance Mayfield Rourk’s vivid book, The Trumpets of Jubilee. Reading about early explorations of Central America for background on Panama, I encountered Humboldt for the first time, and research for an article on Humboldt led me to Agassiz, one of whose star students, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, was Theodore Roosevelt’s professor of geology at Harvard. It was to understand Roosevelt and his time in the Badlands that I looked into the life and influence of Remington. And so it has gone.
The research has rarely been dull, for the farther one goes in the pursuit, the more fascinating it becomes, like being on a detective case. Conrad Richter once told me he was seldom happier than when working at a big library table, with books, notes, and old letters all about him. It was later I found out what he meant.
How can I spend so much time on one subject, I am sometimes asked. The answer, of course, is that no subject is ever just one subject, but ten, twenty, more. You never know.
What is your theme, is another familiar question, and I rarely can say, not at least in the early stages of a project. “I can’t tell as yet,” I have to reply. To find the answer is one of the chief reasons for undertaking the story.
Reading about the lives of such great figures of the nineteenth century as Mrs. Stowe, Agassiz, the Roeblings, one is struck again and again by how much they accomplished in a lifetime. Where did they find the time or energy—if only to write all those letters? Or to keep such diaries? I wonder if perhaps it was because tuning out boredom had not yet been made so easy as in our day, before commercial entertainment took over in American life.
Those I have written about here nearly all led lives of active discovery and right to the last. They are immensely charged, renewed by what they do. Their work and interests are inspiriting forces. Harriet Beecher Stowe felt obliged to make herself useful. But then, I see now, they nearly all do in these stories. With the books they write, their bridges, pictures, their breakthroughs in science, the children they raise, their record journeys, the risks they take, they are the givers of civilization.
But I know the primary reason why I write about them: the great pull after all, is that they are good stories, even the few I don’t like, such as the Marquis de Morès. Many of their lives are deeply moving. To me they themselves are often very glamorous, in the old, true sense of the word.
If there is a prevailing, unifying theme, I suppose it is the part courage plays. The exuberant daring of the Humboldt expedition is one kind. The moral resolve of Harry Caudill is another. Young Teddy Roosevelt’s determination to remain himself in the Wild West, in the face of ridicule, is another kind still.
Courage, moreover, is communicable. It was not Humboldt alone, but he and Bonpland together, who set off on the Orinoco; not one railroad builder who went into the Panama jungle in the 1850s, but a force of many. She flew as her husband’s copilot across thousands of uncharted miles, remembers Anne Lindbergh, knowing sheer terror much of the time. These are brave companions.
• • •
Every writing task involves new problems, some larger than others. Mainly writing means a great deal of hard thinking, the popular impression notwithstanding. (Paul Weis, who taught philosophy at Yale, once remarked, “I’m not as bright as my students. I find I have to think before I write.”) Yet sometimes the very struggle of getting the words down on paper does result in unexpected discoveries or clarifications.
In 1986 I was called by an editor of Life. The magazine, he said, would soon be fifty years old and he wanted me to do an essay for a special anniversary issue.
Would I sum up the importance of world history since 1936 in five thousand words?
I could hardly believe he was serious. The world since 1936 indeed! I stalled, said I would have to get back to him.
When I put the phone down and explained what he wanted to my wife, she said quietly, “You must do it.”
The article, “Extraordinary Times,” different in focus from others here, is included because I think it still stands on its own, for all the tumultuous change since 1986, in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East, but also because the experience impressed on me as nothing before had the extent to which the little-known events of a given time, and people who are not in the headlines, can be what matter most in the long run. And the long run is the measure of history.
In writing history, to catch the feeling as well as the “truth” of other times, it is of utmost importance, I believe, to convey the sense that things need not have happened as they did. Life in other times past was never on a track, any more than it is now or ever will be. The past after all is only another name for someone else’s present. How would things turn out? They knew no better than we know how things will turn out for us.
The problem, as Thornton Wilder said, “lies in the effort to employ the past tense in such a way that it does not rob those events of their character of having occurred in freedom.”
• • •
It is a shame that history is ever made dry and tedious, or offered as a chronicle almost exclusively of politics, war, and social issues, when, of course, it is the full sweep of human experience: politics, war, and social issues to be sure, but also music, science, religion, medicine, the way things are made, new ideas, high attainments in every field, money, the weather, love, loss, endless ambiguities and paradoxes and small towns you never heard of. History is a spacious realm. There should be no walls.
What history is chiefly about is life, and while there are indeed great, often unfathomable forces in history before which even the most exceptional of individuals seem insignificant, the wonder is how often events turn on a single personality, or the quality called character.
I have been going through some of the research files for the stories that follow, remembering not only the work and where it was done, but much else about my own life at the time. I had ventured into the serious business of the historian as an amateur, and with a growing family to support, I was often near the end of my rope financially. But again and again, there were my subjects to lend encouragement, setting a standard by example. How could I not have taken heart from finding that it was as an amateur that Agassiz did his work on glaciers? Or from the picture of him descending by rope’s end into one of the “blue wells” on the Aar and surviving to tell the tale?
These, as I have said, are brave companions, the best of companions.
Humboldt never reached the summit of Chimborazo. Agassiz’s star faded. Washington Roebling endured the painful effects of his work on the Brooklyn Bridge for the rest of his days. Harry Caudill did not live to see an end to strip mining or poverty in Kentucky.
Yet, as I recognize now, these are all success stories. The key is attitude. I hope the reader will remember what Agassiz says to young William James as they lie sleepless in their hammocks on the deck of a steamer on the Amazon, on still another expedition, and how it was that Simon Willard made his clock and why it keeps ticking.
West Tisbury, Massachusetts
April 8, 1991