Review: The River of Doubt


The River of DoubtCandice Millard. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

Summary: Narrates Roosevelt’s exploratory expedition to South America, the decision to navigate “The River of Doubt”, and the harrowing journey that nearly cost Roosevelt his life.

What does one do with oneself after you’ve been President of the United States? What, especially does one do when still relatively young? This was the dilemma of Theodore Roosevelt, known to most of us for his adventures with the Rough Riders, his ascent to the presidency following McKinley’s assassination, and for his own reform-minded presidency and a foreign policy shaped by the dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Some even are aware of his failed run for the presidency as a third-party candidate in 2012. Fewer of us are aware of his journey down a never-before explored river in Brazil that nearly cost him his life, and irreversibly damaged his health.

It is this journey that Candice Millard brilliantly narrates in this work. I first discovered Millard in her later exploration of the assassination of James Garfield (Destiny of the Republic, reviewed here), in which she helps us understand what we lost in Garfield, the crazed personality of his assassin, and the botched medical care that resulted in his death. So I was delighted to return to this author’s earlier work, which did not disappoint.

I had previously read about this journey in Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt (reviewed here). Where it seemed that Morris focused mostly on Roosevelt’s battle with the infection that nearly killed him, and the urgent race to get him back to civilization, Millard gives us much more of the whole story behind the exploration, and much more about the journey both before and after Roosevelt sustained the injury that threatened his life. She sets the context of the invitation to go on an exploratory journey over a relatively safe portion of the Amazon with Catholic Father Zahm, and the decision, influenced by explorer Rondon, to explore a previously unexplored and unmapped river, known as the River of Doubt. We meet other key figures in the expedition from the failed Arctic explorer Fiala, who was responsible for poorly provisioning the expedition, Cherrie, the skilled naturalist who played an indispensable role in the expedition, the cameradas, some remarkably able and on whom the expedition’s success largely rested, and some dissolute, like Julio, who kills another expedition member, and ultimately is left to his fate in the rain forest. Finally, Millard sketches the intense personality of son Kermit, dedicated to his father’s survival, newly engaged, and trying to carve out his own identity in the shadow of his father.

She also narrates a journey that seems to go wrong from the start as overburdened animals shed needed supplies and die on the land journey to the river’s headwaters. And then there is the harrowing journey itself, running through the territory of a fierce tribe of Indians, involving repeated overland diversions because of rapids that might have been negotiated in the lightweight boats, but impossible to traverse in the heavy, unwieldy dugouts. It was during the effort to retrieve one of these that broke loose in a rapid that Roosevelt re-injured a leg injury that rapidly became infected. Between a serious infection, and malaria, Roosevelt’s life hangs in the balance, as does the survival of the expedition, short on food, all suffering the effects of disease and malnutrition.

We relive the struggle between the courageous resolve of the explorers, the dangers of attack at any moment, and the ravage of illness and infection as they struggle toward the junction with the Amazon. We learn the price Roosevelt paid for the glory of accomplishing this exploration. Millard also recounts the afterlife of the other explorers, including the sad trajectory of Kermit’s life, much like that of Roosevelt’s brother Elliot.

Along the way, we see the indomitable spirit of Roosevelt, the disregard for his own safety and life in the pursuit of great aims, and the survival of others, and the humility of being willing, as a former president, to do anything from do the laundry of other expedition members to rescue a stranded canoe, all the while pursuing habits of reading and writing for which he was famously known. We also see the driven character of a man who even in his sixth decade as a former president, still needed to test himself physically against rigors that had killed many younger men.

If you enjoy biography, narratives of exploration, or anything concerning Roosevelt, I would highly commend this riveting narrative of the exploration of the River of Doubt, and Roosevelt’s “darkest journey.

Long Books

War and Peace

The Ultimate Long Book

I’ve seen a number of posts lately about the trend toward long books. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books are credited with stimulating these trends. It’s interesting that all the long book lists are fiction. I suspect that part of the attraction is the chance to lose oneself in a really good story that you don’t want to end. I personally found myself wishing that Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See was at least several hundred pages longer. I’ve reveled in Lord of the Rings several time and thoroughly enjoyed Sharon Kay Penman’s fiction. I have a couple Hilary Mantel books on my TBR stack on the recommendations of friends.

Goodreads has a feature on its stats pages that tells you what were the longest books you’ve read each year. I got curious what books would come up. It turns out that my long books with one exception, have been history or biography and the one work of fiction explores an alternate history. I’ve been on Goodreads since 2011 and here are my long books for each year.

Missing Peace2011: Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace (880 pages). Ross details his diplomatic efforts in the Middle East during the Clinton years, when negotiators probably got as close to an Israel-Palestinian peace as they ever have, only to see Arafat walk away.

At Dawn2012: Gordon W.Prange, At Dawn We Slept (889 pages). This is Prange’s monumental work on Pearl Harbor at the beginning of World War II.

King2013: Stephen King, 11/22/63 (842 pages). King explores how history might have diffent if Kennedy had survived the attempt on his life.

rise of roosevelt2014: Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (920 pages). The first of three volumes, covering Roosevelt’s early life until the day he learns of McKinley’s death and that he is President.

Bully Pulpit2015: Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit (910 pages). More Roosevelt! Goodwin, looks at the Roosevelt and Taft presidencies. Two big men, one long book.

Lee's Lieutenants2016 (so far): Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee Lieutenants (910 pages). This was the abridged version of Freeman’s study of Lee’s commanders.

King’s ability to spin a tale is well established. But what many haven’t discovered, remembering high school history classes, are that many who write history are a pleasure to read. This was certainly true of the books by Ross, Morris, Goodwin and Freeman. I hope you discover them, along with writers like Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Winston Churchill (who wrote history as well as made it), David Halberstam (who also wrote some good baseball books–a kind of history), and Arthur Schlesinger.

So if you are looking for something different in a long book, try some history or biography!

How Much Do You Read?

How much do you read? This was a question posted on Facebook as a comment on my review of Theodore Roosevelt’s The Bully Pulpit. The truth is, I read a good deal, but even so, it took me a month to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book. And the truth is, I enjoyed every minute of it! That might be as good an answer as any for how much to read — as much as you enjoy without interfering with other obligations in life.

rooseveltTeddy Roosevelt found time to read for several hours most days, interspersed through his days. He was known to read a book or more a day. The Art of Manliness has an article on Roosevelt’s reading list — some of which he read multiple times.

What do I do? Most days I try to read for 60 to 90 minutes in the morning in a couple different books. On evenings when I don’t have commitments I do the same, usually with a mug of something hot and listening to some good music. I read most of Sunday afternoons, unless the weather is so inviting that you just have to get out. I usually have a book or two (or my Kindle) in my bag and will “snatch read” when I have some spare moments. I have several books going at once. (You can see what I’m reading on the Goodreads widget on my home page.)

This may be thought odd, and if so, guilty as charged. But is it any less odd that watching three to four hours of TV a night, or a number of two hour or longer movies every week? Or what about the time we spend on the internet or on our smart phones (doing something other than reading)? My point is not to criticize those choices. We choose what we value. One of the things I value is good literature. If you decide to read more, it may mean deciding to do something else less.

I try to read when I can best concentrate. I don’t try to read something overly heavy if I’m listening to music. That is a tug of war. I think I read relatively quickly, although speed is not the issue. If someone is taking a lot of time to elaborate a point he or she has made, I will read that more quickly.

How much to read is as individual a choice as your favorite flavor of ice cream. Years ago, so, someone told me that if you read 15 minutes a day, you can read 15 books in a year. (I probably average 120 minutes a day, and I read about 120 books a year, so this might be a good rule of thumb.) It’s not good to read beyond your ability to absorb what you are reading. It ceases to be enjoyable at that point. For me, that usually comes after an hour of uninterrupted reading. That’s a good time to do something else, or at least refill the coffee mug. So in the end, I come back to the idea I began with, read as much as you enjoy without interfering with the other obligations in your life.

How much would you say you read?

Review: The Bully Pulpit

Bully PulpitWow. Biography of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the best of the “muck-raking” investigative journalists all in one book! Doris Kearns Goodwin pulls this off by exploring the interaction of these three in promoting Progressivism in early twentieth century America. What Goodwin highlights in particular, justifying her title, was the skillful use of the “bully pulpit” of the presidency by Theodore Roosevelt, including the close relationships he developed with writers like William Allen White, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. By contrast, Taft, with a more judicial temperament, tended to allow his speeches and policies to speak for themselves.

Having read Edmund Morris’s three volume biography of Roosevelt recently, I did not find this book casting much new light on Roosevelt except that it seemed that Goodwin probably took a less favorable view of Roosevelt’s role in the breach of the friendship between him and Taft over the 1912 election where he ran against Taft.

What I found particularly illuminating in this book were the portraits of Taft and of the investigative journalists brought together by Sam McClure. Taft is from my home state and was more or less an unknown to me before this novel. Goodwin’s portrait not only underscores his strengths as a jurist and as an administrator, but also that this is a man whose friendship one would count as precious, as did Roosevelt until the break between them. Taft ably governed the Philippines after America’s victory in its war against Spain, putting down insurgencies and turning over government to the Filipino people, albeit an elite. He always wanted to sit on the Supreme Court more than wanting to be president and considered being named Chief Justice in 1921 the highest honor of his life. That he was elected president was a result as much as anything of Nellie Taft’s ambitions and Roosevelt’s orchestration. Sadly, Nellie was afflicted with stroke ten weeks into her husband’s term of office and never fully enjoyed being First Lady. It was Taft who initiated reconciliation with Roosevelt in 1918, less than a year before Roosevelt died, and he who stood quietly weeping at Roosevelt’s grave.

Equally fascinating was Goodwin’s account of the writers for McClures and Sam McClure himself, who took investigative journalism to a high point that may have been matched but probably not exceeded by others. Ida Tarbell’s work investigating the monopolistic practices of Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller represented years of careful tracking down of information, interviews with sources on all sides and an effort to achieve a balance of reporting that made the case against Standard Oil all the more convincing. Such reporting served as a valuable adjunct to Roosevelt’s reform efforts, creating the public support that enabled Roosevelt to fight business interests.

Because of the focus on the presidencies of Roosevelt and Taft, other aspects of their lives, and particularly their life after the presidency are covered in a more cursory manner than in a focused biography. But the relationship of presidents with the press is crucial to the effective use of presidential power, and thus, this is a landmark study with continuing relevance.

Review: Colonel Roosevelt

Colonel Roosevelt
Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the most difficult challenges of the Presidency is being a former president. How does one move from occupying the most powerful position in the world to becoming just another citizen, albeit one who is a member of a small club of former presidents?

Edmund Morris’s third volume of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt covers the decade after Roosevelt was President. It seems to me a narrative of a man torn — torn between the love of exercising power with the thought that he might do so better than his rivals, and the recognition that his “crowded hour” for leadership had passed and that he was in a different season of life.

What Morris’s sparkling narrative reveals is that Roosevelt never resolved this underlying tension in his life. Even when he lay in the final health crisis that would end his life, he was still entertaining hopes of one more run at the Presidency in 1920.

He appears to leave office well, handing the reins of power to his old friend, William Howard Taft. Yet the differences between the two are evident even then and will become more pronounced in the coming years leading to an estrangement only partially healed that left Taft weeping at his grave. He embarks on a safari to Africa, once again the hunter. Then, he tours the capitals of Europe speaking in every place while recognizing the signs of the approaching global conflict. He speaks as one who recognizes that America might need to get into this war, putting off all the peace-lovers on both sides of the ocean.

On his return, he unsuccessfully seeks to contain himself as he sees the Taft White House undoing his reforms. He begins to speak out and maneuver within the Republican Party, finally openly opposing an incumbent who basically has the convention locked up even though the party knows it will lose to Wilson. He bolts, forms the Bull Moose party, survives an assassination attempt (carrying the bullet in his chest for the remainder of his life) only to come in second to Woodrow Wilson.

Once again he turns to the wilds for consolation, this time on an exploratory journey down the River of Doubt, the longest unexplored river in South America. It is a harrowing journey that nearly costs him his life and does cost him his health. Morris’s chronicle of this journey helps us see and imagine what a “near run” thing this was.

He returns to once again take up the cudgels against Wilson as well as the Republican Party, entangling himself in a costly libel suit he eventually wins. He is vociferous in his criticism of Wilson’s efforts to keep the U.S. out of the war and the lack of military preparedness that accompanies this. He sets up his own training camp in which two of his sons participate. Spurned once again in 1916, he watches as Wilson finally embraces the reality he had seen long before that Germany would need to be fought.

His own offers to join the fight and raise a division denied, he sends his four sons as proxies, with two wounded, all decorated, and Quentin lost in aerial combat. He presses on yet Morris chronicles that with Quentin’s death, something broke in Roosevelt. Within two months of war’s end, he is dead.

One of the spiritual writers I respect, Richard Rohr, talks about the life journey of men as broken into two parts, a heroic journey followed by either a journey into wisdom or becoming an old fool by trying to continue the heroic journey of youth. The tale Morris tells seems to describe a figure who, despite the urgings of his wife, could never give up on the heroic journey — the adventures, the relentless speech-making, the prodigious writing, the hunger for power, as well as his relentless physical appetites that ultimately broke his body.

Roosevelt himself never thought he’d live beyond sixty and never seemed to learn to live a life not filled with manic “crowded hours”. It seems to me that all Roosevelt knew was the heroic journey. It was one that left a profound legacy to this day in his prolific writing, his progressive politics, and his sense of both American greatness, and the great potentials of presidential power. Yet one wonders what might have been if Roosevelt’s greatness had been tempered with a wisdom of mind, body and spirit.

I find myself with feelings of both wonder and sadness as I to come to the end of this trilogy. In Roosevelt, Morris tells the tale of one of our greatest presidents, and with it the tale of both human greatness and limits with which each of us must come to terms.

View all my reviews

The Month in Reviews: November 2014

November marked my first foray into the world of graphic novels, another volume in Morris’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a George MacDonald fantasy and a thought-provoking book on Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” There were a number of good theological books in this month’s list as well including an excellent book on dogmatic aesthetics from a young theologian, an extremely helpful book on spiritual direction, a concise book reflecting the latest scholarship on the life of Paul and a provocative book on death before the Fall. So here’s the list:

1. Birmingham RevolutionEdward Gilbreath. Gilbreath briefly sketches the outlines of King’s life but focuses on the events at Birmingham, including the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, that led to the writing of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

2. Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris. This is the second volume of Morris’s three volume biography covering Roosevelt’s years as President, from the assassination of McKinley, to the Panama Canal, to setting aside millions of acres of National Parks and Monuments.

KingTheodore RexAestheticsLiving Paul


3. Dogmatic Aesthetics, Stephen John Wright. Wright, a young scholar, proposes a framework in Christian theology for aesthetics ground in our doctrine of Christ. Throughout, he dialogues with the theology of Robert Jenson.

4. The Living Paul, Anthony C. Thiselton. This is a concise treatment of the life of Paul reflecting recent scholarship and dealing with questions of Paul in relation to Jesus as well as Paul’s view of women.

5. Spiritual Direction, Gordon T. Smith. A thoughtful yet practical introduction to spiritual director that looks at the roles of both director and directee.

Life of mindSeasons of MistSpiritual direction

6. Season of MistsNeil Gaiman. Volume 4 of his “Sandman” series and my introduction to graphic novels with this story of Lord Morpheus descending into hell to rescue a former lover he had consigned to Lucifer’s domain.


7. The Life of the Mind, Clifford Williams. This is another concise book that makes a good case for the intrinsic worth of thinking well, how one begins to cultivate the mind and tensions for Christians in the life of the mind.

8. Beginning with the Word, Roger Lundin. Lundin, an English professor, explores the radical doubt of modern literary theory and how a Christian framework might provide a basis for meaning and belief.


9. The Princess and Curdie, George MacDonald. This is the sequel to the Princess and the Goblin in which Curdie is given a special gift and employs it to attempt to rescue Princess Irene, her father the King, and his kingdom from a conspiracy of councilors and servants with malicious intent.

10. Death Before the Fall, Ronald E. Osborn. An impassioned and well-written argument dealing with both biblical literalism and a theodicy of animal predation, suffering and death, for those not accepting “young earth” creationism. The author spends the first two-thirds of the book on the issue of literalism, only the last third on the title them itself.

Looking over the list for the month, I’m reminded again of the idea that with so many good books, I just don’t have time for bad ones. I hope these reviews are helpful to you in finding something good or maybe a good gift for Christmas!

Review: Theodore Rex

Theodore Rex
Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Theodore Rex is the second volume in Edmund Morris’s three volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt and covers his presidential years. Once again, I found the reading, in Teddy’s favorite expression, a “dee-light”! What stands out most to me in reading this portion of Roosevelt’s biography is that from the moment of his ascension to the Presidency following the assassination of McKinley, here was someone “dee-lighted” to be in the office and to exercise (and expand) its powers in the pursuit of his convictions of providing a “square deal” to all Americans, even if this branded him as a “traitor to his class”.

His first major crisis was an example of his skillful use of presidential power. Anthracite coal-miners were striking for higher wages, better working conditions and the right to organize. Violence was increasing. Yet private interests and the prerogatives of state government hindered Roosevelt from getting involved. Finally with winter approaching, violence escalating, and people freezing in their homes, he intercedes and succeeds in bringing the interests to the table, quelling violence, resuming mining and finding an eventual resolution through a combination of cajoling and sometimes using the weight of the presidency when all else failed.

Similarly, working with his Attorney General, Philander Knox, he finds ways to break up monopolistic railroad and other interests even while working with Wall Street bankers like J.P. Morgan to reassure investors in the soundness of American finances, which sometimes include joint efforts to pour money into Wall Street during financial panics.

Perhaps most fascinating was his work in decisively acting to establish the Panama Canal. The French interests had dithered and the Columbian government had try to extort increasing sums from the Americans without an agreement. Whether one likes the use of US force in this way, Roosevelt precipitates the “independence” of Panama through a strategic use of force and diplomacy that opens up the Canal Zone to US engineers.

Force and diplomacy characterized by the famous saying associated with Roosevelt, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” occupy much of this book. Roosevelt strategically gathers US naval power to head off a German and British invasion of Venezuela, reinforcing US commitment to the Monroe Doctrine. He works to bring an end to the conflict between Russia and Japan in a way that brings him a Nobel prize while also realizing that Japan’s presence in the Pacific called for the building up of the U.S. Navy’s presence in the Pacific (another reason for which he saw the completion of the Panama Canal as critical).

Morris portrays Roosevelt at his noblest and basest. We see his skillful use of both legislation and executive orders to set apart National Parks and Monuments preserving places like the Grand Canyon from mining interests who would have destroyed its beauty. One of his final accomplishments was a conservation conference with governors throughout the country that raised the issue of the conservation of our natural resources for the first time on a national basis.

Roosevelt began his presidency hosting Booker T Washington at the White House to outcries of anger from many in the south. He persisted in supporting some key federal appointments of African Americans. Yet as his presidency went on, it seemed he back-pedaled from these actions. Most notorious was the Brownsville incident, where complaints of black soldiers firing on and assaulting the citizens of Brownsville resulted in the dishonorable discharges of 167 troops, including some who had fought with Roosevelt on San Juan Hill. Evidence was scant to non-existent but Roosevelt never re-considered his “rush to judgment” and this remains the most significant blot on his presidency.

Morris lets us seem daily life in the Roosevelt White House, including his romps with his children and their friends (Edith sometimes spoke of him as one of the children!), his continued literary interests, his gargantuan appetite combined with physical exertions on the White House tennis court with diplomats and Secret Service officers, and his hikes in all weather in Rock Creek Park. He explores the complicated relationship with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who accompanies William Taft on a diplomatic trip to Japan, who often expressed frustration at the constraints upon her and yet remained his loyal daughter.

The book closes with Roosevelts departure from office and the transition from a president who loved every minute of the exercise of power to one in Taft who would rather have been a Supreme Court justice. Morris explores both the difficult and remarkable dance we go through in this country in the peaceful, if not always easy, transfer of power from one president to the next. Roosevelt and Taft loved each other’s company, yet this transition strained even that jovial relationship.

I rated this book slightly lower (I would actually have given it 4.5 if Goodreads permitted this). This somehow seemed a less satisfying read, perhaps because of the constraints and ambiguities of presidential power that even such a dynamic personality as Roosevelt had to contend with. Roosevelt probably used and enjoyed the use of presidential power probably as much as any man. Yet one senses that Roosevelt the man was constrained and sometimes distorted by the office. This is no fault of Morris, although I wonder if he might have explored this aspect further, as it is the challenge of the most difficult and powerful job in the world. That said, Roosevelt’s use of the office, his ideals of a “square deal” for all Americans, and his stewardship of the country’s natural and military resources should probably be a primer for anyone aspiring to the office. This book might well serve as a primary textbook.

View all my reviews

The Month in Reviews: October 2014

As the days shortened and the nights grew chillier, my reading this month tended toward the weightier, with wonderful respites of George MacDonald fantasy and Civil War fictional history and the first installment of Morris’s Teddy Roosevelt biography. At the same time, I explored the question of secularity as a definition of reality, freedom of conscience, a theology of the Holy Spirit and an intellectual and social history of the religious right. Here’s the list of books from the past month:

1. Is Reality Secular?, Mary Poplin. Poplin challenges the secularist assumptions that govern, as she sees it, public discourse and explores four different worldviews and their take on reality.

2. Earthquake StormsJohn Dvorak. Dvorak gives us a combination of history, biography and science in a fascinating account of the history of the San Andreas fault.

realityearthquakesrise3. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris. This is the first of a three volume biography on the life of Teddy Roosevelt, tracing his adventures from sickly childhood through young rancher, civil servant to the fateful day he learns he has become President at the death of McKinley.

4. Meditation and Communion with God, John Jefferson Davis. Davis seeks to articulate an evangelical theology of spiritual formation and relationship with God.

5. The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald. This classic fantasy explores themes of evil and courage and faith in the intersection between the goblins, Princess Irene, Curdie, her “great grandmother” and the King.

public squareGoblinmeditation

6. The Global Public Square, Os Guinness.  This book argues that a public square safe for diversity is one that protects freedom of conscience for all.

7. Spirit of Life, Jurgen Moltmann. Moltmann’s theology of the Holy Spirit. The title is important, as this book is an exploration of the Spirit’s role in our embodied existence.

8. A Blaze of Glory, Jeff Shaara. This is Shaara’s slightly fictionalized account of the Battle of Shiloh and explores what a near run thing this was to a Confederate victory.

spirit of lifeblazegendercidetheocracy

9. The Cross and Gendercide, Elizabeth Gerhardt. This book breaks new ground in giving a theological basis in the cross of Christ for Christian advocacy and resistance against violence toward women and girls.

10. Blueprint for Theocracy, James C. Sanford. A carefully researched study of the theology behind the Christian Right and actions resulting from this theology, marred, I thought, by its scare-mongering tone.

What will I be reading and reviewing in the coming weeks? I’m in the midst of the second volume of the Teddy Roosevelt biography, covering his presidential years, a book on the life of the apostle Paul, an exploration of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and a book on modern literature and the question of belief. Soon, I will be picking up the next installment in Jeff Shaara’s western battles of the Civil War series, which focuses on Vicksburg. I also am planning to read the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, titled The Princess and Curdie.

What will you be reading in November?



Review: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

View all my reviews