A love story from a more innocent time
Every once in a while, a novel hits me with a punch I never saw coming, perhaps even one unintended by its author.
In “If a Poem Could Live and Breathe: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt’s First Love” (St. Martin’s Press, 2023, 320 pages), Mary Calvi carries readers back to the late 1870s and drops us down into a budding romance. New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt is a student at Harvard, and Alice Hathaway Lee is a well-educated Boston Brahman with an interest in literature. When the two are introduced by Richard Saltonstall, Alice’s cousin, Theodore is immediately smitten, even when first gazing at Alice from a distance. “She looked fair as a maiden stepping from the pages of literature.”
The rest of Calvi’s novel paints their growing affection for each other, the turn toward romance and courtship, and their wedding day. The last chapters tell of their short marriage and Alice’s death after delivering a baby girl, her pregnancy having hidden her kidney failure. On this same day, and under the same roof, Roosevelt’s mother also died. Throughout the book, in interludes that may at first confuse the reader unfamiliar with this tragedy in Roosevelt’s life, we find him trying to recover from Alice’s death while enduring the rigors of ranching in the Black Hills of North Dakota.
This courtship with its ups and downs — the sleigh ride when Teddy and Alice first kiss, the intrigues of Alice’s cousin Rose, who adds sparks of humor to the story, the horror when Alice discovers Roosevelt engages in taxidermy of the game he has shot—is the centerpiece of this story, but along the way Calvi introduces us to other interesting people and customs. We learn a bit about the clubs at Harvard. We become acquainted with the manners of that time, the etiquette that guided formal meals and balls. Into the narrative Calvi also weaves letters exchanged between Alice and Theodore, some of which appear here in print for the first time.
We are also given an education in the clothing worn by the upper class of that era. Writers often use the weather to help set a scene, and Calvi employs that device effectively throughout the book, but descriptions of dress feature just as prominently. Here, for instance, is an account of the outfit worn by Alice as she heads off to spend an afternoon with Theodore:
“Having changed into her strolling attire after dance class, she found that her caramel-colored cool-weather walking suit, of velvet material, offered great mobility. Being two pieces, it allowed her to skip the tight bustier, and this skirt went wide at the bottom of her ankles. The high fashion design was not in the outfit itself but in the lace flowing at the wrist and neckline. A cashmere overcoat, in a matching camel shade with twelve gold buttons down the front, completed the look.”
Such attention to detail, evidenced as well throughout the book in Calvi’s descriptions of food, room decor and customs, help bring this period and place more alive to readers.
By now, you’re probably wondering about that punch I described earlier, so here it is.
Just as Calvi has researched and reproduced this time and place in our history, so too has she given us a portrait of its ideals and practices of romance and courtship. Between Alice and Theodore feelings of affection only gradually reveal themselves, flames nourished in very gently stated terms and slow-moving advances. A touching and beautiful innocence is at play here. The etiquette, clothing, and repartee with all their formality seem designed to delightfully conceal what that age might have labeled baser desires.
The contrast between then and now is what delivered a left hook to my head.
The innocence found in “If a Poem Could Live and Breathe” has long gone missing from our own sex-drenched era. Today pornography reigns as emperor of the internet and in every corner of our culture — music, film, literature, art — sex makes its appearance, a demi-god to be worshipped in and of itself. We’ve stripped away all that bulky Gilded Age clothing and those tedious manners, patting ourselves on the back for our openness and our bare candor.
Of course, that time described in “If a Poem Could Live and Breathe” had its flaws and hypocrisies. Though writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton gave us novels of drawing-room manners much like the one written by Calvi, we also know that in these Victorian times prostitution and sex trafficking existed alongside that genteel society of ladies and gentlemen.
Nevertheless, while reading Calvi’s novel, I was struck not only by the innocence we have forfeited in our sea-change of the last 150 years, but also by the loss of purpose in sex itself. Alice, Theodore and their young cousins and friends are seeking in another a partner for life, a wife or a husband. For them, that quest then led to marriage and a family, and not to a one-stop overnight in the No-Tell Motel.
We may laugh at the proprieties of our ancestors, but future generations may well aim their mockery at us for destroying innocence and the mystery and beauty of love.