(This is a re-post from September 23 since a botched WordPress update nuked the post. I haven’t double checked all the links in the re-creation from Google cache.)
Sometimes a biography deepens the mystery about its subject and inspires more questions than it answers. Perhaps that’s the definition of a good or great biography. This is the case with Edmund Morris’ trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt. A beautifully written work on one of the Mount Rushmorians unlikely to be supplanted . There were more consequential presidents but among the influences perhaps none that did more to re-orient the country to exercising its power globally. My questions:
1) The first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, was generally accredited as both a triumph of biography and for helping restore the reputation of Theodore compared to his “Fifth cousin by blood and nephew by law” (via Eleanor, as he was fond of saying), Franklin Roosevelt, who had supplanted him in the public mind. The relationship between the two is barely touched upon, though Franklin emulated his namesake’s career progression almost to the step (down to being Assistant Secretary of the Navy: by the way five Roosevelts in total would be!) The tightness of the Roosevelt clan is one of the highlights of the first book and surely the impressions made are among the greatest consequences. To wit: Theodore Roosevelt was the first to seriously consider a third term and nearly achieve it. Did that inspire Franklin?
2) To have incredibly lost both his first wife and mother on the same day as a young man is covered in depth, and the pride in his sons’ military service is noted as well but the rest of the familial relationships are behind a pretty deep veil, excluding the relationship with his first wife, minutely described. This might be a function of the source material and the (Edwardian?) reluctance to confess much on family topics even in a journal. Still, more would have been welcomed here. What did he think of his son’s career paths, and Alice’s husband the Republican power Nicholas Longworth? The introduction to David McCullough’s contemporary book to Rise, published shortly thereafter, Mornings on Horseback, notes the tightness of the family is not caught by many biographers. That holds in this series too. The closing of Colonel Roosevelt gives the fates of his five children which is hard to not describe as anything but sad. Quentin’s death in World War I is hard to surpass for sheer drama, but the suicide of Kermit, the descent of Archie, and death in battle of Ted all merited greater attention than the niceties of legal depositions – which must be irresistibly tempting to a biographer given the court transcripts.
3) There are tantalizing prospects about how the theory of evolution began to permeate the thinking of Theodore. Starting with a deep interest in Natural History derived from his father who was among the founders of the Museum of Natural History in New York (and after whom the central park grove is named.) His thinking would change over time about the status of American Indians, and in general appeared to move away during his life from theories of a Great Chain of Being. How is his philosophy of engagement and fighting and honor related to the academics to which he was obviously exposed.
“Throughout adulthood he had been a regular worshipper, gradually switching from the Dutch Reformed Church of his forefathers to Edith’s Episcopalian Church — though withour her piety. He had no capacity for devoation, unless his love of nature qualified as that. He scoffed at theories that could not be proved, sentimentalities that put a false face on reality, and extremes of religious belief, whether morbid or mystical. As President, he had tried to remove the phrase “IN God We Trust” from the national coinage.” – Colonel Roosevelt, p. 36
4) Biographies shouldn’t descend into how-to listicles. Still, the sheer organizational energy and time management he must have had to accomplish what he did in politics and writing while raising a family are astonishing. Exactly how was this done? You begin to doubt the anecdotes (quoting Hungarian poetry in a visit to Hungary) or wondering if there were ghost writers (someone who never sailed on his own writing a History of the War of 1812 in his early twenties?) How the heck did he read hundreds of thousands of pages much less write them?
5) The early life in the west and sense that the frontier was “closing” in the late nineteenth century obviously animated a great deal of his public acts (wilderness conservation) and post-Presidential decisions (expedition to uncharted areas of Brazil.) The western connection was also obviously a powerful political tool, but the frontier living in the wake of the death of his wife and mother and the enormous expense of his ranch seems to have been nearly forgotten on a personal level thereafter. It’s almost as if the Rough Rider experience cleaned the slate of all personal history before. I wish this was examined in more depth.
6) The decision to support Taft, not say Elihu Root or Henry Cabot Lodge, was of enormous consequence. Despite all the political nuance covered this seems to have been glossed over (again, a function of the sources?) Morris makes an intriguing suggestion that World War I might not have even happened had Roosevelt won the election of 1912, so great was his international prestige. Reconciliation with Taft is mentioned ancedotally but we don’t know much of what Roosevelt thought of it.
7) Do presidents have different dispositions to capitalism based upon their own experience in the markets? Roosevelt effectively blew his patrimony out west. George W. Bush made millions from the sale of the Texas Rangers. Kennedy’s family had massive capital gains and passed a cut in the capital gains rate. Such datapoints are facile but was TR’s experience in the west assimilated into his perspective on Trusts? Finance is referred to as the one area in which his omnivorous mind was completely uninterested. Why wasn’t it? If for no other reason than the role financiers played in the Republican party this is such a curious lacunae.
The biographies cover topics which in many ways are almost lost to history: Roosevelt on race relations, the 1902 confrontation with Germany over Venezuela. The critique of Wilson’s lack of engagement in World War I after the sinking of American ships and discovery of the Zimmerman telegram are brought to far better light. The indecisiveness Wilson shows over Germany has ominous parallels to Obama in Syria.
Morris was chosen to write the Reagan authorized biography on the basis of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which is understandable. Dutch, the biography that resulted, received criticism for the device of portraying Reagan’s life as something unknowable: the man who had wide affection but no close friends for example. I haven’t read Dutch but wonder if the device almost would have been better with Roosevelt. Could the voluminous expressiveness have itself been a way of hiding, making himself unknowable?
A side note: New York has (at least) two remarkable sites for TR fans. The birthplace, and Oyster Bay. The latter is right now all but closed for renovations and I didn’t make the trip out there accordingly. The birthplace is in the Flatiron district, on twentieth near Broadway. It’s not heavily trafficked. I got to visit the building in August. Fresh off the first two biographies was the right time to go and I found the tour guide (they’re hourly) very engaging. The building adjacent was the home of one of Roosevelt’s brothers, and is currently a library available to scholars about TR’s life. The National Park Service let me in to show me where Edmund Morris had done much of his writing and research.
A library for Roosevelt scholars next to the National Historic site
My single blurry picture (it was near 5 pm, the closing time) doesn’t capture the long library hall. When there in person you get a better sense of the sheer volume of material Roosevelt wrote, and a taste of how much was written about him at the time. (The circular desk in the foreground is apparently where Edmund Morris spent a good deal of time researching.)
I want to go further with Teddy. Mornings on Horseback is on my list to read and H.W. Brands has a well regarded book on TR. Of course, there is Roosevelt’s writing itself to chew on. I might move onto the Caro LBJ series: I’ve read parts of the first three.
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