One has to be an awfully bad writer to pen an uninteresting biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Edmund Morris has written a wonderful account in this volume of Roosevelt’s life until the day he became President. Even Roosevelt’s earliest years are interesting as we read about the sickly, asthmatic young boy who creates natural history museums and responds to his father’s challenge (you have the brains but not the body) by beginning a program of weight-lifting and exercise and by relentlessly pushing himself physically. Then, after abandoning his childhood love Edith, he courts and marries Alice Lee.
What follows is a whirlwind experience of becoming a young assemblyman ferocious to change the world, launching a cattle ranching venture in the west, and losing Alice at the birth of his first child. To console himself, he goes back west and loses himself in the ranch, complete with a winter-time pursuit of some outlaws who he apprehends and brings to justice.
We see all the elements of his life begin to coalesce. He returns to New York, he marries Edith, the childhood sweetheart, and makes an unsuccessful run for mayor. He begins a writing career that includes a landmark history of the U.S. Navy in the War of 1812, a number of biographies and a multi-volume history of the settlement of the west. He serves stints as a Civil Service administrator under Grover Cleveland, a New York City police commissioner (replete with stories of early morning prowls catching police off their beats!) and Under-Secretary of the Navy under McKinley.
This in turn leads to his “crowded hour” on San Juan Hill. His was among the voices protesting Spanish imperialism and oppression in Cuba. When the Maine incident gives the country its reason to go to war, he left his position to become a Lieutenant Colonel of New York volunteers and discovers himself a leader of men. Positioned opposite the key position to defeating the Spanish, he leads a charge up two hills and takes the decisive position with his “Rough Riders”.
The story captures the imagination of the country and he returns a hero. Of course this leads to another book, one of his best sellers, the Governor’s office in New York, and after a couple years to a Vice Presidential nomination, when McKinley’s Vice President dies. This volume concludes with the assassination of McKinley, and the telegram delivered to Roosevelt in the Adirondacks that informs him he is now the President of the United States.
Morris draws this life with rich detail, creating a portrait of the man and a coherent narrative of the events. He won a Pulitzer Prize for this work and I can see why. He combines extensive research with a riveting narrative that explores the inner drives that made Roosevelt who he was. His biography of Roosevelt has two further volumes, one of Roosevelt’s life as President, and one of his years after the Presidency. Both await on my reading stack and I eagerly look forward to them.