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.

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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...

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