Yesterday I had the pleasure of finishing off Mornings on Horseback, David McCullough’s fine biography of the young Theodore Roosevelt and his world. I looked at this book as a companion to Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex, a biography that focused on TR’s years in the White House. I cannot recommend either strongly enough.
McCullough is a tremendous historian and writer, and this volume doesn’t disappoint. Given McCullough’s insight and the endlessly interesting subject matter, how could it? Theodore Roosevelt was one of a kind. He was a forceful politician who would remake the presidency. He was a deeply intelligent thinker fascinated with natural science, literature, and history. He was a driven, hyperactive savant dedicated to living as robust a life as possible. McCullough’s account of his upbringing brings the riveting (and often puzzling) Theodore Roosevelt to life with empathy and wonder, while also painting a vivid picture of Gilded Age politics and aristocratic culture.
Here are a few interesting notes from the book:
-For those overfamiliar with the man Roosevelt would become, the text reminds us what a peculiar person TR was, especially so as a young man. From his time at Harvard, we read one account after another comment on his bizarre mannerisms – endless sentences tumbling out of his mouth, flashing his teeth and seeming to bite the words out of the air, manic gesticulations. The general impression of him was that he was undeniably bright, but a little strange, and more than a little self-righteous.
-As a young man, Roosevelt experimented with various looks before settling on the bushy mustache we all know and love. In college, he grew out his “English-style” mutton chops, and while living in Dakota he grew hockey hair and spit tobacco juice into an empty Mountain Dew bottle.
-The single most significant dynamic in the creation of Theodore Roosevelt was his extraordinarily close family. They were a clan who remained intensely devoted and loyal to each other their entire lives. Theodore Sr., the patriarch, was idolized by all as the ideal father and moral anchor of the family. The children Bamie, Theodore Jr. (Teedie), Bamie, Corinne, and Elliot were best friends for their entire lives (though Elliot suffered an early demise brought on by alcoholism). Daughters Bamie and Corinne each eventually married, but their husbands could never take the central place that their father and brother Theodore had in their lives. Bamie, in particular, served TR as a close advisor and confidante his entire life.
-Roosevelt was a passionate hunter and outdoorsman from a young age. He loved nothing more than strangling wolverines to death and then eating their raw entrails. (This is only barely an exaggeration.)
-Famously, young Teedie was cursed by terrible asthma attacks. McCullough strongly suggests that these were psychosomatic, brought on by the anxiety of the Roosevelt Sunday routine of lengthy church services and an observed Sabbath of inactivity. It says something about the fabulous wealth of their family (from established family businesses in trade and glass) that to address these frightening attacks, they took him on rides through New York in a luxurious carriage drawn by majestic white horses, and even lived on an opulent Egyptian houseboat on the Nile for a year. Must be nice.
-Do you remember a couple years back when they made a third Crocodile Dundee movie for some reason? I bet Theodore Roosevelt would have done something about that.
-TR was undeniably a blueblood. He spoke with a haughty accent (think of his younger relative FDR), dressed in extravagant fashions, and wrote home during his time at Harvard to reassure his parents that he was investigating the “antecedents” of potential friends. Yet, he was not one to luxuriate in his circumstances. Whether researching, politicking, hunting, or reading, he was an incredibly hard worker, tiring out everyone around him. During his famous “Badlands Years”, working as a rancher in Dakota territory, he totally immersed himself in Western life and won the approval of skeptical cowboys with dogged industriousness (though he did raise eyebrows by with his peculiar highfalutin language – “You! Hasten forward quickly there!”)
-A formidable boxer in his own right, TR once knocked a loudmouth cowboy unconscious after he had mocked Roosevelt’s gold glasses one too many times. Later, the chief forced them to become partners and they solved the case, but not before they nearly killed each other in the process!
-Theodore Roosevelt suffered an incomprehensible tragedy when both his dear mother and beloved wife Alice each died unexpectedly, just hours apart on February 14th, 1884 (Valentine’s Day – bummer). McCullough’s prose in this stretch of the book is beautifully understated; I was moved to tears (it probably didn’t help that Bridgette was out of state at the time). The normally loquacious Roosevelt could only manage to ‘X’ out that date in his diary and note “Today, the light of my life has gone out”. He declined to keep a diary for the rest of the year, and couldn’t bring himself to speak of Alice again for the rest of his life, pledging instead to forge ahead at full speed.
-Roosevelt quickly developed into a powerful, dynamic force in Republican politics as a voice for civil reform. To compare him to contemporary figures, he combined the erudite depth of Barack Obama and the spirited independence of John McCain with the frenzied, pile-driving heroics of Hulk Hogan.