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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

“The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt”, by Edmund Morris

886 pages, Putnam, ISBN-13: 978-0698107830

Morris’ research appears to be first-rate, and instead of voicing his own opinions on TR (whatever they may be) he allows his subject to speak for himself. The fact that Morris has written this biography in a style that the average person can understand helps immensely; he has not written just a bald recitation of facts, but, as apparently been given access to Roosevelt’s private journals, as well as similar documents from people who knew or worked with him, the result is, for all intents and purposes, a look inside the mind of one of the greatest political and historical figures of the early 20th Century. The opening chapter is the most intriguing, which speaks of President Roosevelt on New Year’s Day and how we was able to shake hands on an average of 50 grips a minute. From the prologue of the book, the reader understands that one is reading about a man whose intelligence and strength is extraordinary in the truest sense. From this point as President in 1907, Edmund Morris retraces Roosevelt’s history, beginning with his parents. As the young Roosevelt matures one senses the insatiable desire for knowledge and the unbounded determination to overcome all obstacles from childhood to adulthood. From his love of natural sciences as a boy to his rise in politics and to the Presidency, Roosevelt’s life was marked with challenges, conflicts, and accomplishments. One early struggle he had, as most know, was his sickliness and frequent asthma attacks. The book records how his father would ride the coach at high speeds in order to force air into Young Teddy’s lungs. Some years later his father approaches Theodore and gives him the challenge to develop his body to match his mental prowess. Young Teddy replied with a grin that he would make his body, which he did. This book has many such moments of Roosevelt’s life, and the reader is almost dumbfounded when considering the character and charisma of this man, and how it led him to the Presidency.

Morris does much to deify Teddy – and granted, TR was a remarkable man with no equal in energy, drive, tenacity, and a touch of the silver spoon. However, Morris kneels down at the altar with bowed head so frequently that I’m afraid he missed a critical look at some of TR’s faults. Leading up to the Spanish-American War over Cuban independence, Teddy was absolutely itching for a fight. Hell-bent on jingoism, little is said critical of this war at all cost lust. Instead, TR is credited for bringing the nation to war with scant a nod at diplomacy, and is made a demagogue in the American bellicose heart prevailing at that time. Also, In Morris’ deification of TR, some of Teddy’s racist views are inattentively glossed over. It can be written off with the statement that those viewpoints were prevalent at the time, but then the Earth being the center of the universe was prevalent during Galileo’s time. Not that Teddy was one to go against the grain when needed, but in his earlier days, Teddy got the race issue wrong and little is made of it from Morris. Everything is seen in the light of TR’s will, and precious little (except for the magnificent section on the closing of NYC saloons on Sunday) placed next to the people, the public that lived under his rule. I have nothing against TR, he is convincingly portrayed as a simply astonishing human specimen; and yet, by the end I came to second-guess everything due to Morris’ blind devotion. Perhaps a more cautious historian could not have produced such fabulous writing or story-telling.

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