Houghton Library

Past Exhibitions

Roosevelt Reading: The Pigskin Library, 1909–1910

September 2003–September 2004
Theodore Roosevelt Gallery
Nathan Marsh Pusey Library
Harvard Yard

Theodore Roosevelt had promised himself and his son Kermit a safari in British East Africa once he left the presidency in March 1909. When his sister Corinne Roosevelt Robinson asked this famously omnivorous reader what present she might make him for the trip, "his eyes sparkled like a child who was about to receive a specially nice toy, and he said: '…I think I should like a pigskin library'" (My Brother Theodore Roosevelt, 1921). He drew up a list (placed by Robinson in Harvard's Theodore Roosevelt Collection in 1930) and the books went with him, carried, as he described it in African Game Trails, "in a light aluminum and oil-cloth case, which, with its contents, weighed a little less than sixty pounds, making a load for one porter." The pigskin binding itself was to protect the books from rigors of the hunt and the environment: "Ordinary bindings would either have vanished or become loathsome," he noted later.

Photo by Paula Carter, HCL Communications

African Game Trails included the library list when it was first serialized in Scribner's Magazine (Oct. 1909-Sept. 1910); the list also appeared in Roosevelt's extended discussion of the library in the Outlook (Apr. 30, 1910), which noted other works added during the course of the safari, and was incorporated in the monograph version of African Game Trails (1910) as Appendix F. Roosevelt's daughter Ethel had requested the library for herself on his return from abroad. Her father obliged, and in 1925, a few years after his death, she loaned three volumes and the carrying case ("America's most famous bookcase") to Roosevelt House in New York City, the presidential birthplace restored and maintained by the Roosevelt Memorial Association. In later years the library was on display at New York's American Museum of Natural History. After the death of Ethel Roosevelt Derby in 1977, it passed to her daughter Sarah Alden Derby Gannett. Mrs. Gannett, who died in 1999, bequeathed the library to the Harvard College Library's Theodore Roosevelt Collection, for which it was received at the Houghton Library in 2002.

The Pigskin Library as it survives today consists of 55 volumes representing 39 works by 22 of the 37 authors or anonymous classics in the original list, plus four others as noted in the Outlook article. The list is transcribed below in slightly regularized form from Appendix F (see above), with current items asterisked (including bracketed additional works of an author not specifically enumerated), and the other additional works noted at the end:



Photo by Paula Carter, HCL Communications

Borrow: Bible in Spain. Zingali. Lavengro. Wild Wales. The Romany Rye.
*Shakespeare: [Comedies. Histories and Poems. Tragedies.]
Spenser: Faerie Queene.
*Mahan: Sea Power.
*Macaulay: History. Essays. Poems.
*Homer: Iliad. Odyssey.
*Chanson de Roland.
*Carlyle: Frederick the Great.
*Shelley: Poems.
*Bacon: Essays.
*Lowell: Literary Essays. [Latest Literary Essays.] Biglow Papers.
*Emerson: Poems.
*Poe: Tales. Poems.
*Milton: Paradise Lost (Books I and II)
*Dante: Inferno (Carlyle's translation)
*Holmes: Autocrat. Over the Teacups.
*Bret Harte: Poems. Tales of the Argonauts. Luck of Roaring Camp.
*Browning: Selections.
*Crothers: Gentle Reader. Pardoner's Wallet.
*Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer.
Bunyan: Pilgrim's Progress.
Euripides (Murray's translation): Hippolytus. Bacchae.
The Federalist.
Gregorovius: Rome.
Scott: Legend of Montrose. Guy Mannering. Waverley. Rob Roy. Antiquary.
Cooper: Pilot. Two Admirals.
Percy: Reliques.
Thackeray: Vanity Fair. Pendennis.
Dickens: Mutual Friend. Pickwick. Also:
*Goethe: Faust.
*Cervantes: Don Quixote (Ormsby's translation)
*Pascal et al.: Pensées.

Of the original list, Roosevelt wrote in African Game Trails: "It represents in part Kermit's taste, in part mine; and, I need hardly say, it also represents in no way all the books we most care for, but merely those which, for one reason or another, we thought we should like to take on this particular trip."

ROOSEVELT READING: THE PIGSKIN LIBRARY, 1909–1910, opened on September 22, 2003, in the Theodore Roosevelt Gallery, Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, Harvard Yard, with a reception attended by members of the Gannett family, the Theodore Roosevelt Association, and the Friends of the Harvard College Library. On opening day the actual case and volumes were displayed; they have since been replaced by a full-sized replica of the case and a trompe l'oeil photograph of the volumes. The exhibition includes facsimiles of the title-pages of all works, with commentary generally taken from Roosevelt's own correspondence, organized into: Classics and the Continent, History and Romance, English Poets, and Americans. Displayed also are photographs and correspondence from the safari, as well as a facsimile of the list of books as dictated and annotated by Roosevelt, and a sequence of photographs depicting Roosevelt the reader throughout his career.

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