Brad Hodges's Reviews > Colonel Roosevelt

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
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Jan 13, 12

Read from December 21, 2011 to January 12, 2012

I haven't read the first two volumes of Edmund Morris' trilogy on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, but I did read, last year, Douglas Brinkley's The Wilderness Warrior, which covered Roosevelt's life from birth to the end of his presidency. Morris' final volume in his definitive study of one of the most interesting men ever to occupy the White House conveniently picks up after his presidency ended.

The book begins with a prologue describing the Colonel (as he preferred to be addressed, dating back to his Rough-Rider days) on a hunting trip to Africa. He then tours Europe as the most famous of Americans, coincidentally there when Edward VIII dies. He attends the funeral, and is fawned over by royalty. "Confound these kings; will they never let me alone?"

Then, being thoroughly disappointed in his had-picked successor to the presidency, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt "throws his hat in the ring" (he coined the phrase) and goes after the nomination for the Republican Party in 1912. Morris vividly recreates one of the most fascinating election years in American history, as Roosevelt, spurned by the party faithful, breaks away and starts his own party, the Progressives, symbolized by the Bull Moose. Roosevelt manages to come in second, ahead of Taft, despite garnering sympathy by being shot in the chest in Milwaukee. Famously, his written speech slowed down the bullet, a speech he insisted on giving, even though he was bleeding.

The winner of the election was Woodrow Wilson, and Roosevelt would spend much of the remainder of his life railing against him. Mostly it was about Wilson's reluctance to fight back against Mexico, then for his dogged neutrality during the European war that would become known as World War I. Roosevelt was stunned by German atrocities in Belgium, then it was the Lusitania torpedoed by a German U-boat. But Wilson, following his own professorial reasoning, did not commit troops to the war, which drove Roosevelt crazy. In fact, Roosevelt was ready to assemble a volunteer troop of his own. He had a thirst for dying gloriously in battle.

But before the war Roosevelt had an adventure in South America, exploring the River of Doubt, and determining whether it linked with the Amazon. This was really roughing it, and along with the election race, Morris makes it come alive: "Clearing skies and baking heat. Rapids, rapids, rapids. Portages too numerous to count. Rare fish dinners, but still no meat. Evasive tapirs. Grilled parrots and toucans. Monkey stew. Palm cabbage. Wild pineapples. Fatty Brazil nuts. Disappearance of fifteen food tins. Three weeks or rations left. Oxford Book of French Verse. Mountains crowding in. Men hit with fever, dysentery. Malcontents multiply, Daily chapter-writing."

Roosevelt and his son Kermit would emerge from this trek emaciated, the father suffering a bad leg wound. He would recover enough to be a constant fly in Wilson's ointment. When the 1916 election came around, Roosevelt played Hamlet, and professed not to be interested, but then was hurt when the Republican spurned him for Charles Evans Hughes, who lost a squeaker to Wilson. Following the election, the U.S. finally entered the war, and Roosevelt was stung again when the Defense department refused his offer of starting a volunteer regiment, saying he wasn't experienced enough.

Roosevelt's four sons all went, though. Ted, Jr. and Archie were wounded, but the youngest, Quentin, who joined the air corps, was killed over France. It was a blow that the Colonel could not recover from. As Morris puts it. "what made this loss so devastating to him was the truth it conveyed; that death in battle was no more glamorous than death in an abattoir. Under some much-trodden turf in France, Quentin lay as cold as steer fallen off a hook. Look now, in your ignorance, on the face of death, the boy had written in one of his attempts at fiction. The words seemed to admonish a father who had always romanticized war."

Roosevelt was a figure from a different age that has no parallel today. He was bellicose, but he was also progressive--Wall Street was glad to be rid of his presidency. He favored women's suffrage, but mocked pacifists in terms that equated them with women. But he was certainly an expansively brilliant man. He knew about birds and poetry, and befriended and rescued the career of Edward Arlington Robinson, whose lines Morris uses as his epigraphs for each chapter.

With the excitement of the 1912 race and the South America trip, some of the rest seems dull, but Morris in there, swinging. There are two chapters concerning libel trials, with Roosevelt a plaintiff in one and a defendant in the other. It was also surprising to learn that Roosevelt's financial situation was not taken for granted--he needed to work, and did so as a writer, publishing several books (shortly after his death his complete works would equal 24 volumes) and magazine and newspaper articles.

Morris, who worked more than 30 years on this project, oozes knowledge of the man through every sentence. I liked this passage about his Oyster Bay home, Sagamore Hill: "Never elegant--it was too darkly paneled, too cluttered, with horns protruding from the walls and flattened animals snarling underfoot--it had gone through its comfortable and luxurious phases and begun to be shabby. Between faded oriental rugs, the hall floorboards were parted from the pounding of hobnail boots. Foundation cracks ran around the hall mantel. Years of creosote deposits had darkened the cannonballs that lay like testicles at the base of two penile, brass-sleeved shell cartridges serving as andirons in the hearth."

Morris mentions that his first volume was published in 1979, so I can only imagine how he felt as he wrote of Roosevelt's death. As 1919 began, the Colonel was primed to be the favorite for the Republican nomination in 1920; after all, he was only 60. But as a sickly young boy, told he would not live long, Roosevelt told his doctors he would live life vigorously until he was 60. It was time for the reckoning. The illnesses he had struggled through all his life, the bullet wound to the chest, the trials in South America, and Quentin's death, slowed him for good on January 6th of that year. As Morris puts it, "In a more sophisticated era of professional diagnosis, a review of his medical history would indicate that 'the cause of death was myocardial infarction, secondary to chronic atherosclerosis with possible acute coronary occlusion.'

"If so, he could be said in more ways than one to have died of a broken heart."
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