Colonel Roosevelt

Edmund Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt (and theauthor of a critically panned biography of Ronald Reagan), has returned withthe third and final volume of his Roosevelt biography. Colonel Roosevelt, with its descriptive and narrative power, itsthorough exploitation of sources, and its interplay of man and nation, may bethe best biography ever written about the life of an American president. Itfascinates, in much the same way that Roosevelt’s editor at Metropolitan Magazine described theimpression “TR” made on people: “all showing some signs ofhaving passed through a tidal moment in their lives.”

Readers of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt were engrossed by Morris’ narrative of Rooseveltrecovering from the death of his young wife and his mother by spending a yearin the western badlands, converting himself from an East Coast Harvard dudeinto a man of action, able to connect with Americans from all walks of life.Morris, who grew up in Kenya and South Africa and has a feel for the wilderness,once again provides spellbinding accounts. The first, which opens the book,sets Roosevelt in Kenya, hunting big game and collecting specimens of plants andanimals for the Smithsonian Institution. The second, which comes nearer to theend, describes a harrowing trip TR took in the Amazon basin, to chart awilderness river for the Brazilian government—the river gets renamed RioRoosevelt—and of course to hunt, fish, and collect specimens.

To brilliant effect Morrisuses each trip as a device to structure meaning in TR’s life. At the end of hiscarefree African adventure TR sails down the Nile, closer and closer to areturn to Western civilization, and he receives news about American politicsthat presages his coming break with President Taft. It is Heart of Darkness in reverse. As TR portages and paddles downriver inthe Amazon, the dangers increase (unfriendly locals, a mutineer among the crew,ravenous insects, difficult terrain). Morris describes a low point in a diarist’sstaccato:

“Clearing skies andbaking heat. Rapids, rapids, rapids. Portages too numerous to count. Occasionalfish dinners, but still no meat. Evasive tapirs. Grilled parrots and toucans.Monkey stew. Palm cabbage. Wild pineapples. Fatty Brazil nuts. Disappearance offifteen food tins. Only three weeks of rations left.”

TR and the othersgradually unburden themselves, Lear-like (in torrential rain no less) of theirpossessions and much of their cultural assumptions. TR’s son Kermit gets one of the crew killed through animpetuous decision on the river and almost dies himself, but in the processbecomes, in his father’s lights, a real Roosevelt. TR barely makes it out ofthe Amazon alive.

WhenMorris deals with domestic politics and international crises, he makes a strongcase for TR’s continued relevance. Going against a tendency of some biographersto see TR in retirement as a blustering blowhard, unable to get off the stage,Morris shows the ex-President in all his complexity, at the center of progressivethought and Progressive party politics. Morris makes a strong case that TR’scriticism of Wilson’s policies in the first three years of the war werecorrect, and that the nation would have been better off if it had heeded hiscalls for preparedness and a defense buildup. It is a serious rethinking of thepre-war years.

The Roosevelt family comesalive in Morris’s telling. Wife Edith remains as private as ever, but alwaysloving and supportive. All TR’s sons go off to war, and Quentin, the dashingpilot, dies in combat with a German ace. TR’s grief at his sons’ injuries andQuentin’s death remains a private matter, but Morris lifts the curtain for us.

Colonel Roosevelt settles some scores with academic historians whopummeled Morris for his unorthodox narrative approach to his Reagan biography,in a set piece in which TR lectures at the American HistoricalAssociation: 

“The imaginativepower demanded for a great historian is different from that demanded for agreat poet; but it is no less marked. Such imaginative power is in no senseincompatible with minute accuracy. On the contrary, very accurate, very real,very vivid, presentation of the past can come only from one in whom theimaginative gift is strong.” 

With this book, Morrisrests his case.

Richard Piousis Adolph and Effie Ochs Professor at Barnard College and the Graduate Schoolof Arts and Sciences, Columbia University. He is the author of The President, Congress and the Constitution (1984), The War on Terrorism and the Rule of Law (2006), and Why Presidents Fail (2008).