The impact that Will Rogers had – both politically and culturally – during the first part of the 20th century has been muted with the passage of time since his untimely death more than 70 years ago. A recently published collection of his previously unpublished and uncollected papers, however, aims to keep alive Rogers’ significance during his era.
“The Papers of Will Rogers: From Broadway to the National Stage, September 1915–July 1928” was published in December by the University of Oklahoma Press. The fourth volume in “The Papers of Will Rogers” series is filled with more than 600 pages of Rogers’ correspondence, letters, telegrams, transcriptions of sound recordings and other unpublished material from 1915 to 1928. The series’ fifth volume, covering 1929 until his death in 1935, is scheduled to be released during early 2007.
The book’s editors – Steven Gragert, associate director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, and Dr. Jane Johansson, assistant professor of history at Rogers State University – believe the previously unpublished Rogers material will provide valuable insight into the breadth of his cultural and political impact.
“Here is a man who could give a radio commentary and literally impact U.S. policy the following week,” Gragert said. “It’s difficult today to put into context just how decisive and powerful his impact was.”
To illustrate this, Gragert pointed to the example of Rogers’ comments in January 1935 in opposition to a proposal for the U.S. joining the World Court. Historians agree that Rogers’ Sunday night comments on the issue brought a groundswell of opposition against the proposal when it was considered by the Senate two days later.
Johansson, who joined the RSU faculty in 2001 and teaches at the Pryor campus, said she was most struck by the number of communication forms Rogers used to deliver his message.
“He used virtually every communication media of his time, including radio, newspaper, motion pictures, telegrams and more,” she said. “He was a master at delivering his ‘down-home’ style delivery on a wide range of topics, and it’s nearly impossible to understate the considerable impact he had.”
Because of Rogers’ style, most people have tended to dismiss him as not being an intellectual person, but Gragert said a close examination of Rogers’ acquaintances and correspondents shows that he interacted with some of the great minds of his time.
In 2001, Gragert and Johansson were approached independently to complete the “Papers of Will Rogers” project; however, that was not the first times their paths had crossed. In the 1980s, when Gragert was teaching history at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Johansson was one of his students in a class on American diplomacy.
When Gragert himself was a student at Oklahoma State University, he previously had worked on a collection entitled, “The Writings of Will Rogers,” which was a 22-volume project that concluded in 1983.
Much of the research for the project came directly from the Will Rogers Museum archives, but additional research also was done with collections including the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library and the collected archives of the New York Times. The most out-of-the-ordinary research source was perhaps the American Foundation for the Blind because Helen Keller, who was active with the foundation, was a frequent correspondent with Rogers, Gragert said.
One of the most significant aspects of the latest volume of “The Papers of Will Rogers” is the inclusion of a nearly day-by-day chronology of his travels during that period. This is the first time such a chronology has been developed and published, which will provide easy mechanism for historians to cross-reference his activities.
“The Paper of Will Rogers” was designed to provide new sources for future scholars to more closely examine the legacy and impact Rogers had during his lifetime, both scholars said. The project was funded by the State of Oklahoma and the California-based Will Rogers Institute. The Sarkeys Foundation provided funding for the first three volumes of the series.
The editors also credited former museum director Joe Carter and current director Michelle Lefebvre-Carter for their dedication to the project.