Book Review: Edmund Morris' Trilogy - The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, Colonel Roosevelt
Only America, and more precisely, only that America which existed between 1850-1918, could have produced Teddy Roosevelt.
Every once in a while a character springs to life about whom it can be said that he or she is truly an extra-ordinary person, and have that be, quite literally, true. There is often much to admire about such a person, and that is true of T. R. There is also, just as often, much which may be criticized, and that is true of T. R. also, and in spades. However the net result of such a life is that it inspires the rest of us very-ordinary folk to shoot a little higher, strive a bit more and to recognize that, after all, one individual can make a difference.
Edmund Morris' trilogy is superb. I read them as they were published though with a bit of a delay. Biographies fall into that category of "night-time, before I go to sleep, read a few pages and turn off the light", reading. When each book runs upward of 700 pages of tightly constructed prose, it takes a bit of time to get through on that type of schedule. Each of these books however are amenable to that approach. One must be able to "pick up where one left off" without having to go back and review. The writing must stimulate mental images which involve the reader in the material. The subject matter must be interesting and personal and not just endless recounting of facts, figures, policy details, etc. which numb the mind and break the concentration. These books all possess those qualifications and are highly readable.
But if Morris' writing is the proper instrument to convey the information, it is ultimately the subject which determines the worth and no mortal sinner ever walked this earth who was more interesting than T. R.
The man was simply prodigious. How do you encompass a man who: (1) wrote a detailed study of the Naval War of 1812 before he was 25, a work which continues to this day to be a primary reference for any scholarly commentary on that subject, (2) was a recognized expert naturalist who not only wrote regular articles on various aspects of it but was also commissioned by the Smithsonian to supply samples, specimens and analysis of flora, fauna and geography across the globe, (3) was a cowboy & deputy sheriff in the still wild west, (4) raised the "Rough Riders" and lead them in battle in Cuba, (4) was an effective and energetic Police Commissioner in New York City, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice-President and then President of the United States, (5) winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and was actually deserving of it, (6) was the organizing power and principle for a serious third party alternative to the Democrat and Republican political system, (7) carried an assassin's bullet in his chest until he died, (8) fought off multiple bouts of malaria contracted in his explorations in South America and Africa, and .... well, it goes on and on. T. R.'s correspondence ranged from kings to plumbers. He was never late for a publishing deadline and had a nearly infallible memory for details of reading, conversations and acquaintances. His preserved correspondence numbers in the hundreds of thousands of pages in a day when hand writing or dictation was all that was available.
No one was neutral about T. R. His infectious charm made him at home with virtually every head of state in his life-time and many sought his advice even after he had passed his political zenieth. He was a man to be reckoned with in whatever he undertook to do.
The best description of him, I suppose, is that he was a boy who never quite grew up. Whether playing with his kids or his beloved grand-children, he delighted in energetic activity. Passionate in everything, he was explosive in his anger, mostly controlled to some extent in his public dealings but never so in private. His disgust, mostly well merited, with Woodrow Wilson verged on mania.
One of his first public actions was to propose, as a brand new, virtually unknown delegate, that a black man be nominated to the chair of his state political convention. This was unheard of in the late 1800's but it is representative of T. R.'s mind-set. He was a compromiser par excellence in pursuit of objectives but he never abandoned those objectives and saw compromise as only a step in the process.
T. R. was not religious and hence there was lacking in him that spiritual depth that would have, perhaps, reigned in some of his more egregious characteristics. He was, in his own terms, an advocate of "righteousness" (hence my title above). But T. R.'s brand of "righteousness" took Stoic, Spartan pride to new heights. He was fiercely moral but only according to his own defintion of it. There was a blood-thirsty tinge to most of his life and he thought war a means of purifying the national character and developing its virtue. This lead to him flinging his four sons off to the front in WW I and using all of his political skill to get them posted to combat elements. His sons served with distinction but one, his youngest, did not survive and the others were all deeply affected by the horror that they saw.
T. R. never quite recovered from that.
I do not agree with all of T. R.'s political agenda but his far sighted vision and impact cannot be denied. Perhaps his greatest legacy, humanly speaking, is the National Park system and the present ecological emphasis. He was an elitist in virtually every aspect of his personal life but he never lost sight of the common man during a time when the common man was not very high in political concerns. His brand of Progressiveism is foundational to that which goes by the name today but I doubt seriously that he would agree with where it is now registering. His nationalism would place him far afield from the present advocates of that system.
All in all, this is a man who registers most vividly what America once was and will never be again, for good or for evil.
I would most highly recommend Morris' work. Too many Americans today are ignorant of their history and their heritage. These books will acquaint the reader with not only a man but the nation in which he lived and one cannot help but gain from having that additional depth in his perspective.