The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
by Edmund Morris
If I saw a unicorn with a diamond mane carrying Adrian Paul and a young, handsome Henry VIII, I still would not be as shocked and delighted as I was to read this book about Theodore Roosevelt. I knew little to nothing about him, despite his being one of America's most famous presidents. But within the first pages of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt I was already half obsessed with him and dying to know every detail of his life. Luckily for me, this book is a biography, so I got to learn thousands of details, following his every move with fascination, deep amusement, and respect. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the first in a three-part biography of Roosevelt, is stunning, and it's hard to imagine a better one could ever be written.
My overall impression as I read this book was that there could not possibly be a more eccentric, hilarious, impressive, and unique person in all of history than Theodore Roosevelt. He had such an incredibly strong life force and vitality that it can still be felt today, almost 100 years after his death. Morris' amazing literary skills made me feel like Roosevelt was right in front of me, and on each page I could hear him breathing, see him gnashing his famous large teeth and the flashing of his spectacles as he speaks, and feel the energy of his trembling rages. He comes across as larger than life, in his own day as well as today. I know we tell ourselves that everyone is special and unique in their own way, but Theodore Roosevelt was clearly a lot more special and unique than most.
This book covers Theodore's life from birth up until he became President of the United States. As a child he was very sickly, suffering from terrible asthma, and looked (according to his own mother) like a turtle. From a very young age he was obsessed with natural history, dragging around science books he couldn't even read and writing up examinations of dead seals in his notebook. When his mother threw out his field mice collection he cried and bemoaned "the loss to science", which made me adore him. There are too many entertaining anecdotes to share them all, but he was a youth who worshipped his father, kissed the pope, and slammed a pumpkin onto someone's head at Harvard when they annoyed him. He was married and widowed in his early 20's, had his first book published when he was 23, and climbed the Matterhorn in Switzerland even though his doctor told him his heart was so weak that he was going to die. His whole life was about pushing his own limits, and through sheer bull-headedness and defiance he became robustly healthy in his later life, which I found really inspiring.
While instantly recognizable as an older man, here is a young (and, let's be honest, studly) Theodore Roosevelt, around 21 years old.
Roosevelt is probably one of the toughest people I have ever heard of. He became a rancher in North Dakota and spent weeks on horseback on buffalo hunting trips where he was frostbitten, sucked up in quicksand, punctured by cacti, sunburnt, and parched with thirst...and he enjoyed every minute of it! Who else in this world has hunted thieves upriver using a rubber bathtub as a boat???
This book chronicles his entrance and progression in politics, where he was a red-hot political firecracker. First he was an Assemblyman, then Civil Service Commissioner, then Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary to the Navy, and Vice-President. Everyone who met him knew he was different, and from the very beginning of his political career he frightened people by the way he exposed corruption in the system and worked to right it. He was amazingly non-politically correct (he despised political correctness) and his letters are full of mockery and rudeness, for example describing the Secretary of the Interior with "his twinkling little green pig's eyes"! Roosevelt emerges throughout this book as the biggest personality most people had ever seen, overshadowing everyone with his enormous energy and magnetic vigor, and I so wish I could have met him in real life!
It's no wonder that The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt won the Pulitzer Prize, as this is an exceptional work by Edmund Morris. It is beautifully written, and even when Morris' subject is serious the whole work has an undercurrent of comical absurdity and admiration that makes it a pure joy to read. The author uses quotes from letters and diaries that make it seem the characters are speaking, and his eloquence and fantastic metaphors made me feel like a part of Roosevelt's world. The only thing I had an issue with in this book is that after Theodore married his childhood sweetheart, Edith, there is hardly a word about his personal domestic life. The biography focuses so heavily on his career and political track that Edith and his many children are virtually unmentioned, and I would have loved to read more about his family relationships to round him out as a person. But ultimately, even though politics usually bore me, Roosevelt's personality and Morris' wonderful writing kept me fascinated throughout.
This book is a treasure and I cannot wait to read the second book in the series, Theodore Rex, all about his two terms as President. Theodore Roosevelt (he hated being called Teddy. He regarded the nickname as "an outrageous impertinence") is probably one of the most interesting people who ever lived, and this book shows him in all his eccentric glory. From wrestling sumo wrestlers in the White House to mimicking knife attacks on passing horses, from fighting grizzly bears to reading books in the middle of a cyclone, he captures the hearts and imaginations of today's readers just as surely as he captured those of the American people over 100 years ago.