Hero Tales

HERO TALES

Hero Tales is one of the best books on American history ever written and has been in and out of print for most of the last century.  But no more.  This rip-roaring collection of tales—reminding us of the ordinary folks who lived extraordinary lives in order to forge the American Dream—is now available in a sparkling new edition from Standfast Books. It is about time.

Henry Cabot Lodge met Theodore Roosevelt when both of the young men first came to Washington, D.C. at the very advent of their public service careers.  Lodge (1850-1924) was an accomplished first term congressman representing Massachusetts.  Roosevelt (1858-1919) was a newly appointed Federal Civil Service Commissioner, already having gained national attention as an irrepressible reformer in the notorious snarl of New York politics.

They became fast friends.  That was hardly a surprise given their many shared interests and proclivities.  Both were fervent polymaths—interested in a myriad of different subjects, disciplines, and issues.  Both had avid interests in history and were fine writers—Roosevelt had just completed his biographies of Thomas Hart Benton and Gouverneur Morris and Lodge had just completed his biographies of George Washington and Daniel Webster for the same publisher.  Both had an unusual philosophical and political outlook that exalted the common man and his remarkable ability to realize the American dream.  Both were deeply devout and scrupulously moral—then as now, rather rare traits in Washington.  And both men eventually were to go on to have stellar careers and leave indelible marks on American history.

Theirs was one of the most interesting, productive, scintillating, and prolific friendships ever to be forged anywhere, anytime.

Lodge was a wealthy Boston Brahmin—the scion of two of the most distinguished families in New England.  After short stints teaching at Harvard and practicing law, holding local political office, he ran for Congress as a progressive Republican.  Eventually he would serve in the United States Senate for more than thirty years.  He became an expert in foreign affairs and served as the Chairman of the Senate’s powerful International Relations Committee—where he gained fame following the First World War as a fierce opponent of any and all entangling alliances that might compromise the sovereignty of the United States.  Indeed, Lodge almost single-handedly caused the demise of Woodrow Wilson’s pet project, the League of Nations.  In addition though, he was an accomplished scholar and wrote or edited dozens of important works, including a rich twelve-volume anthology of the world’s greatest literary classics and definitive works on the pioneering thought of the great American Federalists Alexander Hamilton and Fisher Ames.

Roosevelt also went on to become one of the most accomplished men in all of the twentieth century.  Before his fiftieth birthday, for instance he had served as a New York State Legislator, the Under-Secretary of the Navy, Police Commissioner for the City of New York, US. Civil Service Commissioner, the Governor of the State of New York, the Vice-President under William McKinley, a Colonel in the US. Army, and two terms as the President of the United States.  In addition, he had run a cattle ranch in the Dakota Territories, served as a reporter and editor for several journals, newspapers, and magazines, and conducted scientific expeditions on four continents.  As if all that were not enough, he read at least five books every week of his life—and wrote nearly sixty on a dizzying array of subjects.  He enjoyed hunting, boxing, and wrestling.  He was an amateur taxidermist, botanist, ornithologist, and astronomer.  He was a devoted family man who lovingly raised five children.  He enjoyed a life-long romance with his wife.  And as a committed Christian he often taught a Sunday School class in his Dutch Reformed Church.

After they met, Lodge and Roosevelt spent as much time together as their busy careers would allow.  They would often walk together through Rock Creek Park.  They enjoyed gathering their families together for dinner.  They joined one another for vacations either at Roosevelt’s home on Long Island or Lodge’s on Cape Cod.  According to Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, the two men were “like brothers.”  She said they “talked a blue streak” and “often “lost themselves in the deep canyons of their wild intellectual pursuits.”  Roosevelt’s son, Kermit, who accompanied his father on two dangerous year-long expeditions to the heart of Africa and along the unexplored Amazon commented that Lodge knew his father “better than anyone alive, save Mother.  At some deep level, they were soul mates.  Father would have assuredly accomplished much in his life, but perhaps the Senator magnified and multiplied those accomplishments through his camaraderie, accountability, and encouragement.”

In later years, the two men would collaborate on innumerable campaigns, legislative programs, and international initiatives but in 1895, just a few years after they met, they co-wrote a collection of historical profiles and vignettes, Hero Tales of American History.  It was their favorite project—and remained so throughout their lives.  Reading it today reveals much about the strength that both men drew from their relationship.  Ted, the first-born of Roosevelt’s brood asserts, “That book not only provides portraits of a fistful of American heroes, it portrays the way a collaborative friendship can shape the destiny of a nation.”

The book project was suggested by Edith Roosevelt after hearing the two men trade favorite stories over the dinner table one evening.  The men took up her challenge with glee.  Throughout 1894 and the first few months of 1895 Lodge wrote twelve profiles and Roosevelt wrote fourteen.  Several were originally published in the St. Nicholas literary magazine, but most were composed specially for this volume.

The men had gradually become convinced that most modern social and political agendas—which were more often than not ferociously alien to the founding principles of the West—generally demanded a radical and revisionist perspective of history.  Thus, it seemed to them that modern historians tended to manipulate the past in an effort to similarly manipulate the future.  So, as an antidote to that kind of dastardly divined despotism, Lodge and Roosevelt advocated a very straightforward, back-to-basics, and shirt-sleeves approach to academic and cultural integrity: strip away the layers of historical waffling and garbling that had begun to veil—or even bury—the truth.

Thus, Lodge asserted that, “Nearly all the historical work worth doing at the present moment in the English language is the work of shoveling off heaps of rubbish inherited from the immediate past.”
As popular chroniclers, that is precisely the kind of work that they attempted to do.  And it was indeed worthwhile—in fact, Hero Tales ultimately set a precedent for a whole new kind of historical commentary that dominated progressive writing for more than half a century.  Along with G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Maurice Baring, Jacob Riis, Francis Parkman, and Thomas Macaulay—all practitioners of that kind of objective historical writing–Lodge and Roosevelt helped snap the spell of smothering modernity with a sane backward glance at the great Christian ecology that gave flower to the remarkable liberty, justice, and hope enjoyed by the democracies of the West.

Instead of writing original history, after the fashion of eyewitnesses like Thucydides, Polybius, or Villehardouin, or reflective history, after the fashion of scholastics like Livy, Seneca, or Toynbee, or even directive history, after the fashion of propagandists like Hegel, Voltaire, and Nietzsche, those stalwarts of truth and integrity preferred philosophical history, after the fashion of functionalists like Eusebius, Vasari, and Groen van Prinsterer.  While philosophical history is primarily concerned with the forest, original history is concerned with the trees, reflective history is concerned with the roots, and directive history is concerned with the humus.  Thus, Lodge and Roosevelt were concerned first and foremost about the landscape, and only secondarily about the flora and fauna that made up its ecology.

Their aim was to preserve the practical lessons and profound legacies of Christendom without the petty prejudice of humanistic fashions or the parsimonious preference of enlightenment innovations.  They wanted to avoid the trap of noticing everything that went unnoticed in the past while failing to notice all that the past deemed notable.  They shunned the kind of modern epic that today is shaped primarily by the banalities of sterile government schools or the fancies of empty theater scenes rather than the realities of historical facts. 

At the same time though, they believed that history was a series of lively adventure stories—and thus should be told without the cumbersome intrusion of arcane academic rhetoric or truck-loads of extraneous footnotes.  In fact, they believed that history was a romantic moral drama in a world gone impersonally scientific—and thus should be told with passion, unction, and verve.  To them, the record of the ages was actually philosophy teaching by example—and because however social conditions may change, the great underlying qualities which make and save men and nations do not alter, it was the most important example of all.  They understood only too well that the past is ever present, giving shape and focus to all our lives—yet it is not what was, but whatever seems to have been, simply because the past, like the future, is part and parcel of the faith.  It is no surprise then that they sought to comprehend events through the same worldview lens as those who wrought the events in the first place.

This book was their attempt to revive a venerable old Christian tradition of charting the topography of that forgotten foreign land called the past.  It was an effort to make the tales of the American heroes of yore a narrative worthy to be told at home round the hearth, to appeal to the heroic heart of all generations, and to reinvigorate the eternal infancy of mankind.  Thus, it was essentially a story not a study.  It was comprised of true tales, to be sure, but they hoped that it would read like valiant fables and not like vapid facts.
Familiarity breeds contempt—though familiar things are all the more remarkable for their comfortable accessibility.  So many of the memorable expressions in Shakespeare’s Hamlet have become proverbial, that once after attending a performance of the play, Mark Twain was able to satirically complain that, “It was nothing more than a bunch of cliches.”  In the same way, certain aspects of the stories Lodge and Roosevelt tell have become so familiar that we are apt to miss their original impact and import—but we ought not and had best not.  By retelling these stories, in the way that they retold them, the men were aiming at the familiar as much as the unfamiliar—in the hopes of exchanging contempt for cognizance.

Hero Tales is one of those rare timeless classics that belongs on every book self, in every library, and in every classroom.  By republishing this book more than a century after it was first composed the editors at Standfast Books have done us all a great service.  I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the project—indeed, some of these comments are included in the book as an introduction, not that tales such as these need anything more than a “tolle legge: take and read!”

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