Mornings on Horseback

by David McCullough

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Mornings on Horseback

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1714

David McCullough has established himself as a gifted and productive historian. His earlier books include the widely acclaimed The Johnstown Flood (1968) and The Great Bridge (1972), the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. These were followed by the epic Path Between the Seas (1977), on the development of the Panama Canal, which won a number of awards including the National Book Award for History and the Francis Parkman Prize. These volumes exhibited unusually creative use of source materials; remarkable insight into personalities, institutions, and technological developments; and the style of a master craftsman. With Mornings On Horseback, his first attempt at biography, McCullough maintains the standards of his earlier works and advances the craft of biography to new levels.

Mornings On Horseback re-creates the family and social environment that shaped the personality, outlook, and self-image of the young Theodore Roosevelt. It is the story of a rather remarkable child who overcame nearly fatal attacks of asthma and won his struggle to manhood because of the nurturing affect of his family and the rarefied culture of New York. The biography does for Theodore Roosevelt what Sunrise at Campobello (1958) did for Franklin Delano Roosevelt: it illustrates the transformation of the inner man through his battle against ill-health and other tragic personal circumstances.

Like The Path Between the Seas, this book offers all the elements of a great novel; it is an enthralling story filled with penetrating character studies and vividly crafted mise-en-scènes. The study is also a brilliant example of social and political history which destroys several myths about the young Roosevelt and breaks new ground. For example, for the first time Roosevelt’s generally poor health and asthmatic condition are closely examined. McCullough draws upon information gleaned from private Roosevelt family papers and upon present-day medical knowledge of the affliction and its psychosomatic aspects.

The author displays an extraordinary talent for character development. Roosevelt’s father, the first Theodore Roosevelt, emerges as a forceful family leader, a talented businessman, a selfless and socially sensitive community leader—the very exemplum of a wealthy aristocratic gentleman. In this figure of boundless energy and urbane sophistication, the frail, small namesake found a loving father and a role model. McCullough presents Roosevelt’s mother, Mittie Bullock Roosevelt, in every shade of her complex, enviable personality. A Southerner and celebrated beauty, she consistently exhibited unsurpassed devotion to the varied and special needs of her family. In her, “Teedie” (as Roosevelt was known as a child) had an affectionate and supportive parent who instilled in her sickly child the moral and physical courage to overcome his physical shortcomings. Other family members grace the book: the adoring sisters Anna and Corinne and the affectionate but star-crossed brother Elliot (father of Eleanor Roosevelt) who succumbed to alcoholism. Finally, there is the tender and beautiful Alice Lee, Roosevelt’s first love who died so tragically young. The biography achieves its remarkable power by capturing this diverse and intensely human assemblage of Roosevelts in vivid detail.

Drawing upon a variety of sources, McCullough illustrates how the asthmatic attacks of Roosevelt’s youth profoundly shaped his personality. The nocturnal episodes were shattering, numbing experiences for both the victim and his parents. On many occasions, the protective parents tended a child “battling for breath, tugging, straining, elbows planted on his knees, shoulders hunched high, his head thrown back, eyes popping.” On a child as acutely sensitive and intelligent as “Teedie,” the affliction had a profound impact that shaped personality, outlook, and self-regard. Yet these attacks made him the absolute center of attention, and, like many other asthmatics, Roosevelt developed a penchant for commanding center stage....

(This entire section contains 1714 words.)

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Also, he was often able to take the inevitable reverses of childhood and adulthood with notable stoicism. “Teedie” thus became tenacious, independent, aggressive, and a seeker of fame. In some powerful way, an obsession with the outdoors and a vigorous approach to life were the products of Roosevelt’s childhood disease.

One is touched by the scrawny youth with sticklike arms and legs undertaking daily workouts at a gymnasium. He remained embarrassingly undersized and underweight and rarely ventured far beyond his family circle until he went to college. His days were also filled with dozens of books on manly adventures (such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, 1719) that added to his admiration for and desire to emulate the brave and strong. World-traveled, adept at languages, and exposed to the outdoors, Roosevelt took full advantage of the opportunities offered by his family’s wealth and social station. He rapidly developed a fondness for taxidermy and the allurements of the American West.

At the age of seventeen, the five-foot, eight-inch, 125-pound boy went off to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to become a “Harvard man.” The limits of his social world, defined by Oyster Bay and New York City, were soon expanded. His health improved almost miraculously as a young man (now known as “Teddy”), and he invested his prodigious energies in classwork and extra-curricular activities. His grades were excellent even though he carried as many as nine academic subjects. He was also a figure of incessant activity outside the classroom. He rowed the Charles River in a one-man shell, took boxing lessons, enrolled in a dancing class, and went on long hikes. He joined the Rifle Club, Art Club, and Glee Club, and still found time to be an officer in the Natural History Society and help publish an undergraduate magazine. Yet, despite his good scholastic record, he did not display a keen intellectual curiosity or excitement. College merely provided an outlet for his boundless energy.

The image of the young Roosevelt which emerges from the book is that of a somewhat pampered, snobbish aristocrat. While at college, he had a comfortably furnished apartment, a manservant to black his boots and care for other personal needs, and a woman to do his laundry. Although bookish, he seemed to care little for politics or national affairs. His name and background gave him an advantage he could exploit. Roosevelt mixed easily and naturally with the school’s young Brahmins and their respective families, and he became a subject of great sympathy when his father died. As a student, his circumstances were always comfortable; the annual income from his inheritance was three thousand dollars greater than the salary of the college president.

Alice Lee, Roosevelt’s first wife, was clearly the great love of the young man’s life. This “rare and radiant maiden,” as he called her, was extraordinarily attractive, slender, graceful, and had honey-blond hair. McCullough does a masterful job of describing their courtship. One sees the love-consumed youth engaging in an eager, restless, passionate pursuit of this beauty. The author also deftly shows how Alice won the hearts of Teddy’s family and, after their marriage in 1880, lived in close harmony with the remainder of the clan. She became one of them and unselfishly shared Roosevelt with his adoring widowed mother and sisters.

These almost idyllic circumstances were shattered in early 1884. On February 14, Roosevelt’s mother died of typhoid fever, and eleven hours later Alice succumbed to Bright’s disease, having given birth to her first child two days earlier. Disease had again struck the tragedy-prone family. During this same period, Roosevelt’s brother Elliot began to display an alarming disposition for strong drink and the pleasures of the flesh. Elliot was a charming, generous, and gregarious person, glamorous as Theodore was not. Because of his own afflictions, Roosevelt was able to steel himself against tragedy, but he deeply felt such losses. On the day of Alice’s death, he made the following entry in his diary: “The light has gone out of my life.”

Despite personal tragedies, Roosevelt won his spurs as a politician in the early 1880’s. At the tender age of twenty-three he sought and won election to the New York Assembly. Despite his age, the youngest member of the body plunged ahead, deferring to no one and making his presence felt. He was a spectacle of political aggressiveness who soon won the attention of the press. Despite a trivial, patronizing maiden speech, Roosevelt left no doubt that he would leave his mark on Albany. Initially a high-principled, blue-blooded amateur, Roosevelt soon displayed a great deal of political acumen. He was his party’s nominee for Assembly speaker at the age of twenty-four and was seldom still or out of sight. Roosevelt was a leader in Civil Service reform and led the battle for labor reform in the cigar industry. He did not regard politics as a gentleman’s diversion; Roosevelt would not shrink from a tooth-and-claw political fight and took on professional politicos in a fearless and forthright manner. Thus, by the age of twenty-five Roosevelt was clearly exhibiting all the talents of a natural politician. He had a genius for gaining the limelight with his gestures and theatrics, and exhibited the undefinable quality of “presence” in his undersized and overdressed way. Press reports on his activities were filled with adjectives such as a “fearless,” “courageous,” “manly,” “tireless,” “plucky,” and “brilliant.”

Roosevelt was no less committed to living the life of a “ranchman.” He found great appeal in the freedom of the open-air existence and invested heavily in a Dakota Bad Lands ranch during the cattle boom of the early 1880’s. The eastern aristocrat spent a fortune on buckskin clothing, expensive bridles and saddles, and engraved knives and guns to look and act the part of his version of the gentleman cowboy. He was fearless in his opposition to rivals and an aggressive investor, but fell victim to a savage winter that wiped out most of his stock. After a few years, he ended his Western adventure and sold his holdings.

The book concludes with Roosevelt’s quixotic campaign for mayor of New York in 1886. Despite his third-place finish behind Abram Hewitt and Henry George, he was able to state that “At least I have a better party standing than ever before.” Thus, at the age of twenty-eight the former sickly youth, who had suffered agonizing personal losses in his young adulthood, was whole in body and spirit and poised to achieve greatness. With verve and trenchant insights, David McCullough presents the forces and persons that shaped the character and personality of the man who became the nation’s youngest president.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55

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