Book Review: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

I have known of this book for some time, and it has been relegated to that long list of books that I hope to read someday.  Recently, however, one of my sons sent me the following quote ascribed to Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic that counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

These words touched me deeply, and as soon as I had read them I determined to learn more about the man who had written them.  So it was that at first opportunity I ordered a copy of this book.  It is a huge volume of almost one thousand pages, including notes and index.  It begins at the birth of Theodore Roosevelt and ends just as he is about to ascend from vice president to president when McKinley is assassinated.  On the way it goes into great detail on Roosevelt’s childhood, youth, schooling, early political ambitions, years as a rancher in the Badlands of Dakota, military career in the Spanish/American war with the Rough Riders, election to the governorship of New York, and eventual nomination to join McKinley on the Republican ticket for the presidential election. During this flamboyant rise to political prominence Roosevelt penned fifteen volumes of history and other popular nonfiction, and served as a New York State assemblyman, a sheriff in cattle country, a commissioner of the United States civil service, president of the New York City Police Board, and Assistant Secretary of the United States Navy.

The book reads like a novel.  At no time does it lag, and at no time is it boring despite its length.  It is well-paced and extremely well-written.  When it first appeared it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, well-deserved honors for a superlative piece of research and writing.

And now on to an analysis of the man himself.  He was possibly the most enigmatic and flamboyant man ever to serve as a president of the United States.  If he had one defining attribute, it was courage.  He would fly into whatever fray presented itself to him, whether the battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba, during which comrades were getting shot and dropping all around him, or political battles against corrupt and powerful adversaries.  He loved a scrap; he loved to show his mettle. It seemed, in fact, that he was more comfortable in the midst of adversity than taking his ease at home, though he did believe strongly in late nineteenth century family values and was fastidiously faithful to his first wife, who died very young, and to his second, who stood by him through his tumultuous life and bore all but the first of his numerous children.

So far so good.  His courage and morals were unquestionable.  And yet…  Men of force, as they say, are men of faults, and Roosevelt was no exception.  For example, though he had an undoubtedly sincere love of animals and nature, the way he showed it, especially as a youth and also later in life, was in hunting down, killing and stuffing birds and mammals until he had amassed the equivalent of an extensive private museum-full of horns, skins, and stuffed animals which he displayed in his home.  In one particular instance the book describes in detail that, aware that the plains bison was fast disappearing from the prairies, instead of trying to save the remaining beasts, Roosevelt sets off on a frantic days-long hunt to kill one before they are all gone.  In addition, Roosevelt was raised a member of the aristocracy and was rich all his life, and not only was a spendthrift and dreadful in managing his money, but he often displayed the self-righteous hypocritical superiority of attitude that went with the aristocratic turf.  But more than anything his greatest virtue, his courage, also had its dark side.  Sometimes he craved a battle when diplomacy would have served the purpose so much better.  A classic example is the onset of the Spanish/American war.  McKinley wanted to go slow, to negotiate and try to arrive at a diplomatic settlement.  Roosevelt, on the other hand, who had pushed aside the Secretary of the Navy and was calling the shots in his stead, was all gung-ho for war, not only because he felt it was in the nation’s best interests, but because he was so keen to enlist and see battle firsthand for himself.  His attitude was often to literally punch someone out and ask questions later.  Several examples of this tendency in his early years, if attempted nowadays, would undoubtedly land him in jail for assault.

So yes, Roosevelt was a complex, forceful man.  The book ends just as Roosevelt is about to be informed that McKinley has died from his wounds several months into his second term as president.  Roosevelt, by a twist of historic fate, served his first term without having been elected president, but he was reelected in a landslide four years later.  This is the first volume in a trilogy.  The second book describes Roosevelt’s presidential years, and the third book the years after his presidency until his death in 1919.  Someday I will probably read these other volumes, though not right away, because I have many other items on my reading agenda.  For now it was enough to read this, the story of the early years of the dynamic Theodore Roosevelt, for not only a glimpse of the man, but of the era in which he lived.

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