Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life, by Thomas Bailey and Katherine Joslin (Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge; 368 pp., $35.00).  Theodore Roosevelt always considered himself a man of letters, and indeed he was one.  He began reading widely and writing at an early age, and a day never seems to have passed when he did not read and write, even in circumstances fiercely dissuasive of both activities, including an exploratory trek into the wilds of the Brazilian jungle.  A contemporary critic, Charles W. Ferguson, wrote eight years after TR’s death that, had Roosevelt become a writer instead of a politician, “he would have gained for himself a position in American literature equaled by few other men.”  He wrote history, autobiography, accounts of his explorations and discoveries, essays, and reviews.  A naturalist as well as an adventurer, he excelled at bringing the two roles together.  And he was a superb stylist, more direct and elegant as a narrator and descriptive writer than in his discursive prose, which reflected something of the literary rotundity of the period.  In the former genre he was a modernist in advance of his time.  There are many passages, for example, in his book Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail (1888) that anticipate Hemingway in their taut, clean sentences and vivid, impressionist descriptions.  Indeed, they match him.  (I have in mind especially Roosevelt’s account of the Missouri River frozen hard and grey as iron between its banks during the terrible winter of 1887-88.)

This is a very clever book and, it seems to me, a very original one.  With great skill, the authors have succeeded in constructing something close to an indirect, or inadvertent, autobiography from a wide array of literary texts that were written as nothing of the sort.  It is astonishing how thoroughly and completely their chronological treatment of an immense body of material tracks even minor events in Theodore Roosevelt’s life to create an alternative biography that closely parallels the countless previous conventional ones.  It is, finally, a very well-written book, the more important in this instance as Bailey’s and Joslin’s own prose never jars against Roosevelt’s usually polished sentences.  Roosevelt, the man Henry Adams called “pure act,” made no distinction (in his own case at least) between physical action and the intellectual act of literary composition.  Both were, as he saw them, aspects of the strenuous life, and he pursued them both strenuously; though he could, especially in later life when the voice of a public man tended to supersede the hand that held the pencil, write hastily.

Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life is a superior piece of work that I expect to return to many times in future.

The Infinite Desire for Growth, by Daniel Cohen (Prince-ton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 184 pp., $24.95).  Daniel Cohen is director of the Department of Economics at the École normale supérieure in Paris.  The publishers are keen to point out that in writing this book he consulted works in economics, anthropology, and psychology, and ones by “thinkers ranging from Rousseau to Keynes and Easterlin.”  In his Conclusion, the author asks, “Why do human beings constantly want to escape their condition [by becoming ever richer through ceaseless economic growth]?”  “It is an impenetrable question,” he says, “with which psychoanalysts, anthropologists, and economists have sought to come to terms.”  Significantly (as one realizes in reading further), Professor Cohen did not think to consult the nearest parish priest on the matter.  He does quote the philosopher René Girard, who wrote that “humans feel intense desire, but they do not know for what.  For it is being they desire, a ‘beingness’ of which they feel deprived and which, it seems to them, others have.”  St. Augustine supplied the answer, with such simple finality: “The human heart is restless until it finds its rest in God.”

Cohen conducts a brief survey of economic history from which he determines that people always wish for the goods they see others around them enjoying, and that from the beginning of the industrial age they have found promise and comfort in the assurance of uninterrupted economic progress and an ever-increasing supply of material goods.  But then came the arrival of the postmodern age, when wages became stagnant and the middle class suffered downward mobility (and a consequent decline in expectations) while the rich became richer still.  Hence the importance of growth.

[G]rowth is more important than wealth for the functioning of our societies: growth gives everyone the hope, short-lived but always revived, of rising above one’s psychological and social condition.  It is the promise that soothes worries, not its fulfilment.

Cohen thinks that the solution to the present angst is for people to become less individualistic and materialist, to substitute an expanded social consciousness for personal desire, and to replace competition for cooperation and a reduction of “social endogamy” in favor of community.

Of course the answer is far more radical than that.  Galileo and Kepler, Cohen says, showed our ancestors that the universe is empty, nothing beyond the stars.  “Is life worth living, [they] asked, deprived of the divine promise of salvation?”  Cohen thinks “We are experiencing a crisis of the same nature. . . . Will our lives be harsh and sad if the promise of material progress is taken away from us?”

That is a problem for the École normale supérieure to research.  Wiser souls will look instead to Saint-Sulpice or Saint-Denis for the answer.