Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America is an engaging account of a 1910 forest fire that burned an area in the northern Rockies the size of Connecticut and took dozens of lives. Egan is a winner of the National Book Award for a popular history of the 1930’s Dust Bowl, and he knows how to vividly evoke character and spin a tale. When he is writing about the heroic efforts of forest rangers and firefighters to combat the flames of the Big Burn, he is on sure ground and his narrative is dramatic and compelling.
Egan’s account of the fire takes up only about one-third of the book, however, and his sections on the political background to the Big Burn prove much less satisfying. Egan’s portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Progressive Era is simplistic and one-dimensional. He settles all too often for a portrayal of “good guys” fighting “bad guys” that would be more appropriate for juvenile literature. He leaves out crucial aspects of the story of the rift between Roosevelt and Taft, his chosen successor. He also oversells the significance of his subject. The great Northwestern blazes of 1910 did not save America. In the end, then, Egan’s book obscures as much as it reveals of the political forces operating through the smoke of the Big Burn.
Egan insists on referring to Roosevelt as “Teddy,” a name the president loathed. He did not appreciate being called by a diminutive that evoked the children’s toy that was named after him. Egan’s use of the nickname is a telling indication of the superficiality of his understanding of Roosevelt. An immediate verbal caricature, it is of a piece with his general depiction of the president, startlingly reminiscent of the grinning, toothy, Rough Rider who graced contemporary political cartoons. One constantly expects Egan’s Roosevelt to shout “Bully” and charge up the hall stairs.
Egan sees the well-born Roosevelt as a traitor to his class who defended workers and challenged big business and the wealthy. This is a crude interpretation of Roosevelt’s Square Deal, which sought to balance the interests in American society. Although famed as a trustbuster, Roosevelt made a crucial distinction between good and bad trusts; he never led a crusade against corporate America. Even during his Bull Moose campaign for the presidency in 1912, one of Roosevelt’s closest associates was George Perkins, a partner of financier J. P. Morgan.
Egan writes with more authority about Roosevelt’s conservationism. Roosevelt played a critical role in protecting great tracts of land from immediate exploitation, as Egan says. Even here, however, Egan obscures the strong connections between Roosevelt’s love of the outdoors and his less currently fashionable concerns about hunting, war, and “race suicide.” Roosevelt wanted to preserve ground where men could test themselves as their pioneer forebears had, resisting the deadly corruptions of an urbanized, consumerist society. As Egan grudgingly acknowledges, Rooseveltian conservationism was concerned with preserving resources for future generations, not precluding future development.
Egan’s treatment of Taft is little better. Invariably, when Taft makes an appearance in the book, mention is made of his girth. While Roosevelt is portrayed as a trim and fit liberal, Taft is a fat and languid conservative. Taft was no politician, and he soon felt out of place in the White House. He made many mistakes in his first year of office and never mastered the art of public relations. Nevertheless, he was an able chief executive with a progressive record that gets no mention in Egan’s book.
As a conservationist, Taft set aside twice as much public land in his single term in office as did his energetic predecessor in over seven years. Taft deserves the title of trustbuster far more than Roosevelt does. His Justice Department launched over three times as many antitrust suits in his four years as president. In fact, it was Taft’s decision to bring an antitrust suit against U.S. Steel in 1911 that led to the decisive rupture in his relations with Roosevelt. The suit mentioned a deal made by U.S. Steel that Roosevelt had personally approved.
The Rough Rider regarded the Justice Department’s action against U.S. Steel as a personal affront, and he soon resolved to challenge Taft for the Republican presidential nomination. Egan...
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