The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
Published in 1979, revised and updated in 2001
Genre: Nonfiction, biography
“On the late afternoon of 27 October 1858, a flurry of activity disturbed the genteel quietness of East Twentieth Street, New York City.”
Theodore Roosevelt is among the most famous of American presidents for good reason. Social reform, foreign policy expertise, and his famous mustache all come to mind when thinking about the 26th president of the United States. What The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt brings to the table is the tale of his not-so-humble beginnings and how he rose above sickness, the juggernaut of machine politics, and the concerns of naysayers to be one of the most influential men of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt covers the future president’s life beginning with his birth in 1858 and ending with his ascent to the Vice Presidency in 1901. In 780 pages, we see the asthmatic boy who would be president grow not only physically but as a person.
Born into a moderately wealthy New York family, young Theodore Roosevelt was stricken with sickness and asthma. Due to this, much of his childhood was spent reading and observing the nature around him; this would set the foundation for his voracious appetite for literature and nature. Among family trips to Europe, young Teddy developed a love for studying animals and birds, often hunting, skinning and practicing taxidermy on them. Apparently times were indeed different in the 1800s because children killing animals and skinning them for fun is generally frowned upon these days. However, young Roosevelt was very scientific in his study of animals and his personal vigor helped to push him past his illness.
Roosevelt grew into a genial yet forceful personality; stubborn, boisterous and tenacious, he used his aggression not only to overcome his illness in early life but would form it into part of himself. When told by a doctor that he should avoid any strenuous activity lest his heart become overworked and kill him, Roosevelt said “Poo on you!” (not a direct quote) and climbed a mountain, going even more out of his way to challenge his physical endurance. He was also an insomniac and a workaholic, often writing and reading late into the evening.
As a reformer, Roosevelt fought against the corruption of machine politics by fashioning the media into a weapon he could use to oust the spoils politicians and those taking advantage of the present corruption. He served as a member of the New York State Assembly, the Minority Leader of that same assembly, Police Commissioner of New York City, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 33rd Governor of New York, and 25th Vice President of the United States. In addition to these political offices, Roosevelt also spent time as a cattle rancher, author, and soldier as the Lieutenant Colonel of the Rough Riders Regiment (who never actually rode into battle. Look it up!)
Through his various occupations and travel, Roosevelt not only came in contact with many different sects of America at the time but befriended many of them. There was a certain charisma that exuded from him which earned the respect of cowboys, politicians, scholars and military men alike. His own regiment was made up of cowboys, men who studied at Yale and Harvard, Native Americans, and many other demographics. One of the most endearing qualities of Roosevelt is how much he changed from a pompous youth who turned his nose up at those he deemed below him (this was during his time at Harvard, so I suppose we can forgive him) to a man who was able to sympathize with the common people of the country.
Morris does a great job with this biography, giving us an intimate glimpse into the private life of a beloved figure in history. His voice is present throughout, often making sarcastic and snide comments which lends some character to what otherwise could have become a long and drawn out account. However, his voice does become somewhat jarring at one part where he makes fun of the 300 pound Lieutenant General William Rufus Shafter, who was in charge of the Cuban Expedition that Roosevelt and his Rough Riders took part in. One comment might have been warranted but to bring it up multiple times seems in bad taste.
The other issue I had with this biography was that the pacing does get bogged down in the political jargon and accounts of Roosevelt’s time in his various offices. While this shows the change in character that Roosevelt went through as he matured, the juxtaposition with his time with the cowboys as a rancher in the Dakotas and with the Rough Riders in Cuba makes these sections more cumbersome than they might otherwise have appeared. I realize that the events are presented chronologically so there isn’t really a way around it, but it slowed me down as a reader and caused me to write two editorials (On the Subject of Genre and On the Subject of Adaptations: Part 1 – Separating the Book and the Movie (Shameless plug is shameless.)) that you, my poor readers, were forced to slog through.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is a comprehensive look at the private life of one of the most famous and influential men of the last 200 years. Morris writes with a purpose and overall allows the reader to identify with a man who seems almost too enigmatic to have been real. Many of the stories in the book could be the stuff of folklore and would give Paul Bunyan a run for his money. I can’t wait to read the follow up; I mean, I’ll read a few books in between in order to cleanse my reading palate but I definitely plan on reading Theodore Rex in the future.
Verdict: 4 soft spoken men carrying big sticks out of 5
Recommended for: Admirers of Theodore Roosevelt, fans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, patriots, history buffs, and aspiring reform politicians.
Not recommended for: Bears, deer, buffalo, birds, ducks, foxes, small animals, lovers of small animals, P.E.T.A., those with short attention spans, machine politicians, or the politically correct (there’s some antiquated language in here).