The best books Theodore Roosevelt read in the White House, 1901 to 1908

Thomas Bailey & Katherine Joslin Author Of Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life
By Thomas Bailey & Katherine Joslin

Who are we?

We live in the countryside of southwest Michigan in a farmhouse dating back to the 1830s on land once owned by James Fenimore Cooper. The land itself has stories to tell that intrigue us as readers and writers ourselves. Katherine’s passion for the writings of Jane Addams and Edith Wharton led her to Theodore Roosevelt, a kindred male voice in American literature at the turn of the twentieth century. Tom’s passion for environmental writers and activism led him to the books and essays of the 26th President, who believed that good writing sometimes leads to good laws! As professors and writing partners, we are delighted every time we can introduce readers to the literary Theodore Roosevelt.


We wrote...

Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life

By Thomas Bailey & Katherine Joslin,

Book cover of Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life

What is our book about?

We tell the story of Theodore Roosevelt as a writer and a reader, literary activities he pursued relentlessly from the time he could read and hold a pencil until the day before he died, when he wrote his last review for The New York Times. During his not very long but intensely lived life, he read untold thousands of books, wrote 47 of them, thousands and thousands of letters, scores of speeches, articles, and reviews. Some say he read a book and dozens of newspapers and magazines a day even while he was in the White House. We review and assess this life in language, painting a complex and somewhat demythologizing portrait of a fascinating, heralded, and often written about American man of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The books I picked & why

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Up From Slavery

By Booker T. Washington,

Book cover of Up From Slavery

Why this book?

Theodore Roosevelt read the book and loved his philosophy and way of telling a life story. Autobiography is at the heart of American literature. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute and Roosevelt’s contemporary in age and thinking, was the first writer the President invited to lunch at the White House, controversial as that invitation came to be. We love the book because, in this day of reconsidering Black history, the reader can see how Washington’s notion of self-reliance, captured in his famous admonition, “Cast down your bucket where you are,” helps to define the quest for economic and social freedom for people of color in the early 20th century. Readers will discover a compelling man with an engaging writing style who speaks to the struggles within American society that persist to this day.


Our National Parks

By John Muir,

Book cover of Our National Parks

Why this book?

We love this book for its breadth and its moral and environmental urgency. Muir writes eloquently [in an admittedly heightened and romantic prose] about the beauties of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Sequoia National Parks, the only ones in existence at the time. Muir is of interest to Roosevelt because of his understanding of how important it is for wilderness to be preserved for all time not by state governments—as was the case in his time—but by the federal government. This of course was one of TR’s central personal beliefs and was to be, especially after his two-night camping trip in Yosemite with Muir in 1903, a central and guiding policy of his Presidency. For an elegant essay, readers might want to spend time with Muir’s chapter, “The Wild Gardens of Yosemite Park.”


The Virginian

By Owen Wister,

Book cover of The Virginian

Why this book?

Theodore Roosevelt loved this book because of his own interest as a historian in telling tales of how the West was won. Wister was a friend of Roosevelt’s from their Harvard days together, and the President actually worked as a friendly, informal editor of the novel, even advising Wister on the final shape of the story. We love this book not only because it is the first evocation of Western cowboy mythology—perhaps the most popular American story—but also because it in many ways replicates Roosevelt’s experience as a Dakota rancher in the mid-1880s, an experience he chronicled. Roosevelt and Wister remained close friends until his death. Wister went on to be an adviser and friend to such writers as Ernest Hemingway who was angered by Roosevelt’s editing of the novel.


The Jungle

By Upton Sinclair,

Book cover of The Jungle

Why this book?

Theodore Roosevelt read this book in manuscript and didn’t much like it, but fully understood, as a good reader and adept politician, that it would cause trouble. The President thought Sinclair a ‘hysteric,’ and despised his socialism, still knowing the book would be a widely heralded bestseller about the meat packing industry in Chicago, and the melodramatic trials of the Lithuanian immigrants who worked there. We love the book because it makes compelling reading to this day. The furor of the public response to the sanitary conditions in the packing plants brought about the momentum that Roosevelt needed to get the Food and Drug Administration established. Sinclair joked, “I aimed for America’s heart, and hit its stomach.” Contemporary readers might be surprised to see a president shaping federal policy because of what some muckraker had written.


The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton,

Book cover of The House of Mirth

Why this book?

Theodore Roosevelt and Wharton were children of Old New York and shaped by the values of the Gilded Age. They were intellectual and highly creative, and both were little inclined to settle for a soft, safe life that often comes with great wealth. Roosevelt knew and admired Edith Wharton and loved her novel because she tells the truth about money and happiness. As Wharton put it, “A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.” Her bestseller in 1905 tells the story of Lily Bart. He loved the novel because he too understood the destructive power wielded by “the malefactors of great wealth.” He worked during his Presidency to give everyone “a square deal.” We love the novel because it resonates with readers today as we live through our own gilded age. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Teddy Roosevelt, Wyoming, and slaves?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, and Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking if you like this list.