All students of the 26th presidency have noted Theodore Roosevelt’s immense culture and voracious reading. He was indeed a “literary fellow,” to use Katherine Joslin’s phrase in her recent Eccles Centre lecture at the British Library. The number of contemporary writers he knew and corresponded with is truly amazing. One of his most unexpected interests in foreign literature concerned Provençal poetry. He was aware of the renaissance of Provençal letters initiated by Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914) in the second half of the 19th century. A lexicographer and writer, Mistral founded the Félibrige with a group of friends, a regional association dedicated to the rehabilitation of the langue d’oc, the medieval dialect spoken in the south of France. Mistral’s best-known work is his long epic poem in Provençal verse, Mirèio (1859), or Mireille in French translation, which contributed to his fame among the French literati, both Southern and Parisian, and won him the Nobel Prize in literature on December 10, 1904. The previous month Mistral had sent the newly elected president an inscribed copy of a handsome new edition of his masterpiece, with a present for Mrs. Roosevelt, a silver medal with the effigy of a Provençal girl in traditional attire. The inscription in Provençal read literally “To Mr. Roosevelt, the illustrious president of the star-spangled republic, a tribute from a poet of the republic of Arles”, by which he expressed both his regionalist and federalist convictions. For Roosevelt here was dealing not exactly with a separatist but with a cultural nationalist who conceived of his region as fitting into a federalist frame — be it French or European — that preserved its linguistic autonomy, pretty much like the position adopted by Catalonia today. His letter of thanks on December 15, 1904, confides that he has had a copy of Mireille for some twenty years but will now cherish the author’s inscribed copy; he praises Mistral for his commitment to “the things of the spirit” but gives no clue as to his thoughts on or knowledge of Mistral’s (actually fuzzy) political standing. In fact, because he had fluctuated from left to right, while remaining a staunch federalist, the old poet’s legacy was confiscated in turn by democrats and by right-wing extremists of the Charles Maurras persuasion during the Great War and after.
Corinne Roosevelt Robinson mentions TR’s letter to Mistral in My Brother Theodore Roosevelt but places it erroneously on December 15,1905, like the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. Interestingly, Eleanor Roosevelt also alludes to it in her column My Day on February 22, 1949, giving the correct date of her uncle’s letter.
The letter, penned in English, created quite a sensation in France, and more so in Provence. Today, the Mistral museum in Maillane, the poet’s birthplace, hometown, and life-long residence near Arles, exhibits a copy of Theodore Roosevelt’s missive with a translation, and no Mistral celebration in Provence these days, for the centennial of his death, fails to remind the audience of this presidential recognition of 1904.