Monday, December 20, 2010

Teddy bear

Theodore Roosevelt is my second favorite U.S. President (my first is Rutherford B. Hayes, because he had crazy eyes and looked like he should have been carrying a sign and shrieking from the streetcorner). Edmund Morris' Pulitzer Prize-winning biography pretty much reinforces the awesomeness and sheer strangeness that was Teddy Roosevelt.

What makes this biography great is that it does a masterful job of explaining how someone as contradictory in philosophy, belief, and behavior as Roosevelt could have existed. After all, Roosevelt was a conservationist who enjoyed shooting animals, a man who firmly believed in manifest destiny and racial superiority and yet expressed some truly revolutionary beliefs about enfranchisement and social equality, a man whose image was masculine to the point of caricature who was in reality physically very delicate, a skillful persuader who wasn't afraid to roundhouse someone he disagreed with, and a politician who was equally at home in a tent on the plains or in a New York salon.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt covers Teddy's life from his birth until the moment President McKinley dies and the telegram naming Roosevelt as President is being frantically carried to the Roosevelt's vacation cabin. Morris examines Roosevelt's childhood and young adulthood minutely, combing through reams of correspondence and revealing a much more three-dimensional portrait of Teddy than the Rough Rider with the clashing teeth and blunderbuss. It is clear the Roosevelt was a simply extraordinary person with an almost superhuman will and a fantastically agile mind, who nonetheless had a warm and humorous character.

"Teedie," as Theodore was nicknamed, was a fragile, asthmatic child with a small and delicate frame. This precarious health plagued him for most of his life, with recurrent asthma attacks and chronic stomach problems. The portraits of the young Theodore show a skinny, ropy teenager with bushy sideburns and a serious glare behind his round spectacles. As a child, Teedie became obsessed with studying naturalism, and in a foreshadowing of his later big-game hunting days, devoted a considerable amount of time to taxidermy.

The letters and recollections from Teddy's adolescence make it clear that he was a person with an unusually multi-faceted intellect, but it isn't until he reaches Harvard that it becomes clear just how unusual he is. As a student, Roosevelt wrote The Naval War of 1812, which was published when he was 23. Roosevelt, who had never served in the forces or been at sea, produced a masterpiece of scholarly research that became required reading by the Navy and influenced naval policy. Roosevelt would go on to become an accomplished author, writing two biographies (Governeur Morris and Thomas Hart Benton), several natural histories, his multi-volume The Winning of the West, and innumerable essays and addition to, you know, becoming a New York State assemblyman, a police commissioner in New York, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Roosevelt has confounded other biographers, simply because he is too much of a Renaissance man. How else could one explain someone who hauls along a Winchester and a copy of Anna Karenina while thundering across the frozen plain in pursuit of buffalo and antelope? Someone who found time to take on Tammany Hall and civil service reform while stumping for the Republican party and keeping up a simply dizzying breadth of correspondence?

Wisely, Morris lets Roosevelt speak for himself, including long excerpts from his letters, journal entries, and articles. The letters reveal someone with an almost superhuman capacity for knowledge who simply by accident of personality avoided being cold and unrelatable. Comparing Roosevelt to his contemporaries, such as the icy Henry Cabot Lodge, makes the contrast even more striking.

Morris creates as complete a portrait of Roosevelt as any in existence, contradictions and all. I was sorely disappointed when The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt ended, although I'm looking forward to reading Theodore Rex. I think Morris can be forgiven for a bit of hero worship, since it's nearly impossible to read this book without being swept up in the depth of the author's feelings for his subject.

The only discordant note that I found was Morris' analysis of Roosevelt's relationship with his first wife, the beautiful Alice Lee. After Alice's death two days after the birth of their daughter, Roosevelt destroyed nearly all the letters he and Alice had exchanged and erased every mention of her he could find. He never spoke of her again, and only five letters survived from their long correspondence before and during their marriage. But it's clear, from the recollections of those Morris cites and the surviving letters, that Roosevelt loved Alice very deeply. Morris faults Alice for having a shallow and uncomplicated mind and writes that by dying young, Alice rendered a 'great service' to Roosevelt, leaving him free to marry the more complicated Edith Carow. That seems rather unfair to Alice - after all, how many twenty-two year old women of that era had the opportunity to, I don't know, publish a naval history?

Morris is at his best when focusing on Roosevelt. When he discusses other people, like Edith, Alice, or Roosevelt's siblings, his analysis of their character and behavior seems to depend more on conjecture. That aside, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is a wonderfully realized biography of a complex and fascinating person.

According to IMDB, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is being adapted into a movie for director Martin Scorsese, and Leonardo DiCaprio is slated to play Teddy.

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