Matt's Reviews > The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
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's review
Apr 26, 16

really liked it
bookshelves: american-presidents, biography

Everyone, it seems, loves Theodore Roosevelt. He did so many things, and was so many things, in his fully-lived life, that there's an aspect of his personality that anyone - of any political persuasion - can latch onto.

A Democrat can support his love of nature, and the creation of the National Park system; Republicans can support the fact that Teddy would be more than willing to go into those National Parks and blow the hell out of whatever animal crossed his path. A Democrat can support the fact that he was a social reformer (he palled around with Jacob Riis); Republicans can support the fact that he was tough on crime (he was the NYC Police Commissioner, after all). Democrats like that he was a trust buster; Republicans can get behind his muscular foreign policy (and he even killed a Spaniard, back when that meant something).

In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris gives us the first in a planned trilogy on the overstuffed life of our 26th president. It begins with Teddy's birth in 1858 (he was a frail, tiny baby) and ends with his accidental ascension to the presidency in 1901, following the assassination of William McKinley. Between those dates are enough ups, downs, triumphs, tragedies, and adventures for a couple lives.

Teddy's defining principle is neatly summed up in his famous speech on citizenship in a republic, which he gave at the Sorbonne. You've read the speech, I'm sure, or at least the part about "the man who is actually in the arena" who should be glad knowing that "his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." This quote has been repeated so many times, on so many Greek t-shirts on so many college campuses, that they've lost all meaning. It's very easy to believe these things. You'd have to be a contrarian not to believe them. But as Morris shows, Theodore Roosevelt was a man who lived the principles of doing, trying, daring.

He started as a sickly, asthmatic boy who liked insects and taxidermy. Before he was fifteen, he'd traveled the world: Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land. Realizing his physical weakness, he embarked on an ambitious exercise regimen. He attended Harvard and and he liked to kill animals and stuff them. In other words, a renaissance man.

Morris chronicles all this and more in a way that places you into Theodore Roosevelt's life. Too many biographies maintain a certain formality that manifests itself as distance and lifelessness. These are works that seem content to tell you what happened, and in what order, and maybe even what it might have meant to the world. But few give you that sense of a living, breathing person, and the near-infinite nuances of character that entails. Really, the only other biography I can compare this to is Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson. I don't think Morris is as good a writer, but both authors have the same ambition: to show the full, epic scope of a great man's life, while still capturing the human details.

At nearly 800 pages, Morris has the space to cover everything. Not just the obvious stuff, like the tragic death of Roosevelt's first wife, but the littler events that nevertheless shaped Teddy's life. For instance, Morris gets into the specifics of the rough-and-tumble world of New York politics, where Teddy started as a "political hack", became an assemblyman, and eventually lost a bitter mayoral election. Somewhere in that span of years, he also found time to chase down some horse thieves outside his Dakota ranch (Morris helpfully provides a map of this escapade).

Surprisingly, one of Teddy's better-known exploits - his charges up Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill - are dealt with rather briefly. Which is not to say the passages weren't enjoyable, because they were. Morris is a vivid storyteller, up to the task of narrating his hero's journey.

Already [the hill:] was breathing fire at its crest, like a miniature volcano about to erupt, and spitting showers of Mausers. The bullets came whisking through the grass with vicious effectiveness as the Rough Riders crawled nearer. Every now and again a trooper would leap involuntarily into the air, then crumple into a nerveless heap. Roosevelt remained obstinately on horseback, determined to set an example of courage to his men.

Roosevelt won the Medal of Honor for his actions. Then he went back to America and became Governor of New York. And this was after he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Yes, after you finish reading this book, you will look at your own life in despair at how little you've accomplished (but look on the bright side: Teddy Roosevelt never read a book review on the internet!)

With all these great deeds and derring-do, my favorite section of the book was on Roosevelt the writer. Morris does a commendable job analyzing Teddy's literary efforts, which include The Naval War of 1812, a biography on Thomas Hart Benton, and his mammoth project, The Winning of the West. It's fascinating to see how Teddy's writings foreshadowed his concept of America, which became important when he ascended to the presidency.

With any biography, there comes the question of bias, either pro or con. On the whole, I thought Morris' treatment of Roosevelt was quite fair. Any time you have such an out-sized character, you run the risk of hyperbole or hagiography. Morris manages to avoid this, and doesn't get swept away by Roosevelt's theatrics. This is no small feat, since Roosevelt was a writer and his stories got better with the telling. Morris does note some of Teddy's darker characteristics, but he doesn't dwell long on them. If I have a criticism here, it's that he doesn't really explore Teddy's racial views. Not to put to fine a point on it, but he was something of a white supremacist (of the paternal, early 20th century variety, not the cross-burning Mississippi brand of the 1960s).

Since this book was authored by the same guy who wrote Dutch, the controversial biography on Ronald Reagan, I am obliged to say that there are no fictional narrators inserted into the story for reasons unknown but to God and Edmund Morris. Indeed, the scholarship and sourcing look top-notch, and I found the endnotes to be quite enjoyable. (Apparently, Teddy and I share the same book-crush on Natasha from War and Peace).

As an aside, apropos of nothing, something about Teddy Roosevelt just bugs the hell out of me. There's too much of the moneyed dilettante about him. I can't help thinking his pugnacious, blustery, can-do style must have been irritating and insufferable to his contemporaries. Yeah, we get it Teddy. You like to herd cows while reading Tolstoy. It's pretty easy to believe that anyone can achieve anything if they only work hard enough when you yourself were born rich. I'm interested, as I read the next volume, to see Teddy's Horatio Algers myth at work in the White House.

With that said, I'm looking forward to reading the next volume, Theodore Rex. I also fondly hope (as I do with Robert Caro) that the fates will allow Edmund Morris to finish this project.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Lightreads (new)

Lightreads As an aside, apropos of nothing, something about Teddy Roosevelt just bugs the hell out of me.

Yes, exactly, to this entire paragraph. I had precisely the same reaction to Mornings on Horseback

Matt After finishing the book, and having that reaction, I started to wonder if I wasn't being exceptionally bitter. Thanks for letting me know I'm not the only one!

Josh This is one of my favorite books and the best of the Morris TR series. As a side note, I'd suggest that Republicans like National Parks as well, with or without the ability to blast animals!

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