The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt captures the turn-of-the-century world of white, middle-class America, which was filled with scandal, delight, and genteel living. Teddy Roosevelt was a colorful, dramatic man who tried to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” He lived life to the fullest and never met a stronger-willed person than himself. A cowboy, storyteller, soldier, politician, writer, and family man, Roosevelt played many roles at the same time and never tired of the spotlight. He was a man of “pure action,” in Morris’ estimation, and as a result was nearly uncontrollable once he was in pursuit of something.

Roosevelt’s first political job was that of New York State Assemblyman. Although he was in his early twenties and new to politics, he attacked Civil Service corruption and shocked older politicians who lacked his courage. Not even the governor could dampen his attacks. The press loved his reforming spirit and made him a popular hero. While his popularity rose and fell, he made headlines in every office he held (including New York City Police Board Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy under McKinley, Governor of New York, and Vice-President under McKinley). Morris shows how Roosevelt’s love of politics and strong sense of ethics enabled him to survive turns of political fate which would have destroyed the career of a less forceful personality.

A prime motivator in Roosevelt’s life was his hunger for information. As a child and young man, he spent much time studying natural history. He hunted all types of creatures, killed them, embalmed them, and made extensive notes; private tutors supplied lessons in taxidermy. Morris covers these youthful years in rich detail that is sometimes disgusting but always interesting. Also fascinating are the accounts of Roosevelt’s escapades as a cowboy in the Dakota Badlands. During these escapades, usually undertaken between political posts and job-related scandals, Roosevelt would travel hundreds of miles a day to shoot large animals. He seemed to enjoy hardship and won the respect of notable roughnecks who at first sneered at him because he was an “Eastern dude” and wore eyeglasses. One disturbing element mars these otherwise exhilarating accounts: Roosevelt’s lust for the kill. Only Morris’ later descriptions of Roosevelt’s interest in conservation enable the reader to forgive his hunting excesses and lack of compassion.

While Morris covers his subject’s early family life and two marriages, he does not supply much intimate detail. Roosevelt was a very moral man who grieved in private when his first wife died and kept much of their life together a secret by destroying parts of his diaries pertaining to their courtship and brief marriage. His second wife, Edith Carow Roosevelt, was a very private person. Only through Teddy’s correspondence with his sister Bamie as well as private diary entries, do some details leak out. The most interesting concern his discussions of the death of his alcoholic brother, Elliot. For the most part, however, family life is described from a distance.

Quotations from Roosevelt’s diaries are rich in anecdote and description and possess a certain nostalgia, all of which are elements of a good story. Roosevelt acquired his talent for storytelling as an asthmatic child, partly through listening to his Aunt Annie Bulloch tell stories of the Old South. Gracious living in a wealthy family, combined with ethical conduct and serious study at home and abroad, enabled Roosevelt to converse with the most sophisticated and well-educated men of his time; his Western cowboy experiences also gave him a knowledge of the ordinary person. These advantages, combined with his unbridled political ambition, made Roosevelt a complicated person difficult to capture in a biography. While his character is not completely explained, it is well described in more than seven hundred pages of fascinating reading.

Covering the prepresidential years 1858 to 1901, Morris uses both published and unpublished sources to show how intensely Roosevelt’s life was taken up with politics. The opening chapter, “New Year’s Day 1907,” affords the only look at Roosevelt’s presidency, during which serenity bathed the country and the President was at the pinnacle of his power and popularity. He and middle-class America were respected throughout the world, particularly since the President was the first American to win the Nobel Prize. Morris then backtracks to Roosevelt’s birth in 1858 to chronicle the steps which eventually led to his attainment of the highest office in the land. Family genealogy is summarized, and the character and personality of Roosevelt’s wealthy and cultured parents are examined. A close love relationship emerges that bound...

(The entire section is 1966 words.)