Written by the man the teddy bear is named after, Hunting the Grisly and Other Sketches brilliantly captures the thrill of the chase as Theodore Roosevelt recounts his North-American hunting adventures. Told in campfire-story spirit, it is a celebration of the great outdoors, a handbook on hunting, and a socio-historical record of the United States in the nineteenth century.
An asthmatic who grew up in New York City, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) seemed an unlikely candidate for wild game hunting. Because Roosevelt was confined to the house as a child due to his asthma, "he would read adventure stories," according to National Park Service Rangers at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. As he grew up, he "started living his own adventure stories." Through a strict exercise regimen he overcame his initial frailties and grew into the revered sportsman whose conservationist efforts led to the establishment of America's greatest game preserves. His survival skills were honed as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War, and his demonstrated leadership paved the path for him to become twenty-sixth president of the United States of America, a profession that seemed to be in his genes given that his cousin was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
By instinctively writing about the great game animals of the West, Theodore Roosevelt preserved the untamable spirit of America during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As the United States' fascination with the Wild West grew - in 1803 Lewis and Clark began their great adventure, and by 1845 the phrase "Manifest Destiny" had been coined by John O'Sullivan - pioneers' impact on nature was visible. When "Buffalo Bill" Cody ushered in the mass slaughtering of the bison, even Roosevelt purchased ranches in the Dakota Badlands aspiring to add to his hunting collection this symbol of the West before it became extinct. Not surprisingly, buffalo hunting is the very first chapter in Hunting the Grisly and is discussed in relation to the transcontinental railroad. Roosevelt attributed his experiences in the Badlands to his later success; when President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 - ironically in Buffalo , New York - Theodore Roosevelt, his running mate during his second term, became president. A year later he had ratified the Newlands Reclamation Act, which promoted Western settlement.
As settlers continued to move West, hunting wild game served a dual purpose: political - it forced Native Americans, whose survival depended on the natural resources (buffalo "furnished all the means of livelihood to [some] tribes," according to Hunting the Grisly ) to relocate so that white settlers could claim their territory - and sport - it promoted outdoor adventure and competition. While his earlier book The Winning of the West pits man against man (it reflects Roosevelt's view that "The settler ousts no one from the land. The truth is, the Indians never had any real title to the soil"), Hunting the Grisly focuses on the age-old battle of man versus nature. Although hunting for sport is today oftentimes viewed as problematic, if not blood thirsty, because of the rapid deforestation of the country and the adding of grizzlies to the endangered list in 1975, one must view Hunting the Grisly in the cultural context of the era. Hunting was the extreme sport of the nineteenth century, somewhat like skydiving is today, and the vivid passages in Hunting the Grisly relate the daring exploits of facing North America's most cunning creatures. "During the years I lived on the frontier I came in contact with many persons who had been severely mauled or even crippled for life by grislies," asserts Roosevelt. "Sometimes a single bite causes death," he reveals about the grizzly bear, which he calls the "king of the game beasts."
Having his article "Hunting the Grisly" appear in the popular hunting and fishing magazine Field & Stream in January 1899, Roosevelt stands on his own as a hunter. Subtitled An Account of the Big Game of the United States, and Its Chase with Horse, Hound, and Rifle , the book, like the magazine article, offers expert advice in the varied tools and methods of hunting. Roosevelt, whose fellow Rough Rider William Tiffany was the son of the founder of Tiffany & Company, had his hunting equipment fashioned at the famous jewelry store and later had his equipment for his African safari provided by Abercrombie & Fitch, the same retailer that outfitted several other presidents, as well as Amelia Earhart and Ernest Hemingway. The first rifle Roosevelt owned was a thirty-eight caliber Ballard. A marksman and a National Rifle Association Life Member, Roosevelt later "signed Public Law 149 into effect, authorizing the sale, at cost, of surplus military rifles, ammunition, and related equipment to rifle clubs meeting requirements specified by the [National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice] and approved by the Secretary of War," according to the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.
Besides hunting with a rifle, Roosevelt also hunted with dogs, some of which were "descendants of Custer's hounds." In Hunting the Grisly , Roosevelt explains that "as the old wilderness hunter type passes away, hounds come into use among his successors, the rough border settlers of the backwoods and the plains." He gives some insight into popular breeds and the regional differences in using dogs on hunts, and says, "of all sports possible in civilized countries, riding to hounds is perhaps the best if followed as it should be, for the sake of the strong excitement, with as much simplicity as possible, and not merely as a fashionable amusement. It tends to develop moral no less than physical qualities; the rider needs nerve and head; he must possess daring and resolution, as well as a good deal of bodily skill and a certain amount of wiry toughness and endurance."
At the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, there is, in addition to the reconstructed birthplace, a gallery called the "Lion's Room," which displays more than a dozen heads and pelts - including two birds that Roosevelt mounted himself and the head of a bear. Roosevelt presented many of these hunting trophies to his wife and adorned the White House with some of them. National Park Service Rangers point out that they "taxidermied animals back then with arsenic," and "used the brains of the animal to tan the skin." These hunting tools and practices snap to life in Hunting the Grisly as Roosevelt describes men disastrously getting caught in the traps they set, wolves overcoming one dog only to succumb to the pack, and horses escaping the wrath of the great grizzly.
In fact, what makes Roosevelt's book stand out from others on hunting is this masterful pairing of expertise with high literary quality. Hunting the Grisly is nuzzled in the tradition of Davy Crockett, who in Bear Hunting in Tennessee (1834), boasts "one hundred and five bears I had killed in less than one year," and Thomas Bangs Thorpe, who in The Big Bear of Arkansans (1854) recognizes the diminishing population of animals that Western civilization has fraught, and even Winslow Homer, who in the painting Bear Hunting, Prospect Rock (1892) portrays wild game hunting. On the whole, the popular literature of the early nineteenth century - the works of James Fenimore Cooper (The Deerslayer ), Henry David Thoreau (Walden ), and Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass ) - concerned itself thematically with man's relationship with nature.
Nature references and particularly hunting passages have increasingly been replaced by urban and technological metaphor in North-American writing, but Roosevelt's intimations of nature persist in contemporary bestsellers, like acclaimed travel writer Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (1998), the opening chapter of which reflects the spine-tingling anticipation of coming in contact with the grizzly while hiking through the forests of the United States. Even at the turn of the millennium, when scores of writers throughout the centuries could have overshadowed Roosevelt, his writing was so memorable that it stood up alongside Ivan Turgenev and Ernest Hemingway in The Greatest Hunting Stories Ever Told , edited by Lamar Underwood, in 2000.
Although he hunted for sport, Roosevelt had a profound respect for nature. He said, "Encouragement of a proper hunting spirit, a proper love of sport, instead of being incompatible with a love of nature and wild things, offers the best guaranty for the preservation of wild things." His adoration for wildlife became the subject of public media when Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman captured a sympathetic image of the president. A bit of revisionist history, Drawing the Line in Mississippi showed Roosevelt refusing to kill a bear cub when in fact what the cartoonist had witnessed in the autumn of 1902 was Roosevelt telling his hunting companions to humanely put down a wounded bear the dogs had cornered. In any event, according to the History Channel, the cartoon "depicted Roosevelt's dual accomplishments on the trip - negotiating border disputes and protecting wildlife."
Roosevelt's appreciation for nature had been instilled in him by his father. Having descended from Dutch settlers who gained riches as importers when they came to America in the 1640s, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., had the means to pursue philanthropy. In fact, the original charter for the American Museum of Natural History was signed at the Roosevelt house when his son was around ten years old. "Just before my fourteenth birthday my father-then a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History-started me on my rather mothlike career as a naturalist by giving me a pair of spectacles, a French pin-fire double-barreled shotgun-and lessons in stuffing birds," wrote Roosevelt in "My Life as a Naturalist" for The American Museum Journal in May 1918, demonstrating his dedication to the museum's vision to promote natural-history education. The museum, acknowledging his awareness of science, sent him on foreign expeditions and later commemorated his achievements by establishing a permanent exhibit, the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, which depicts Roosevelt's contributions to the study of natural history.
Roosevelt extended his hunting and museum philanthropy beyond the realm of hobby, actively recognizing the lasting importance of the United States' natural resources. While developing the Panama Canal and mediating the Russo-Japanese War - for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - Roosevelt met with conservationists and altered the course of American history. Founding the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887, "His vision was to establish a coalition of dedicated conservationists and sportsmen who would provide the leadership needed to address the issues that affect hunting, wildlife and wild habitat," according to the Club. In 1903 Roosevelt went camping in Yosemite with John Muir, one of the founders of the Sierra Club, who greatly influenced Roosevelt's efforts to save America's breathtaking landscape. After being elected president in 1904, Roosevelt created the United States Forestry Service, which he turned over to conservationist Gifford Pinchot. According to the National Park Service, "During Roosevelt's time as President, the forest reserves in the U.S. went from approximately 43-million acres to about 194-million acres." Besides establishing 150 national forests, Roosevelt also established five national parks - Crater Lake, Oregon; Mesa Verde, Colorado; Platt, Oklahoma; Sullys Hill, North Dakota; Wind Cave, South Dakota - and fifty-one wildlife refuges.
After he left Washington, D.C., Roosevelt continued to be an influence in natural history. Roosevelt took Kermit (1889-1943), one of his six children with him on his post-presidential adventure travels to Africa and South America and attributed his son with saving his life. The Happy Hunting-Grounds is Kermit's recollections of going on safaris with his father and exploring on his own. His father once said of his son, "It is rare for a boy with his refined tastes and his genuine appreciation of literature - and of so much else - to be also an exceptionally bold and hardy sportsman." Kermit and his brother Theodore, Jr., inherited their father's interest in bears and the two co-wrote Trailing the Great Panda . Meanwhile, when Franklin D. Roosevelt became the nation's thirty-second president, he furthered his cousin's vision by signing the 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which imposed on hunting guns a 10% tax that went to fund wildlife restoration. One of the nation's most beloved presidents, Theodore Roosevelt's connection to nature continues to be seen today: among the many things named after him are a national park and a species of elk.
Although Roosevelt does not have the distinction of being the first president to write a book - his predecessors include Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Ulysses S. Grant - he was the first president to ride in a car, fly in an airplane, and dive in a submarine, once again evidence of his adventurous spirit. His hunting literature is a lasting treasury of America's natural heritage and, combined with legislative action, it furthered the preservation of the United States' landscape, resources, and wildlife.
Stephanie Nikolopoulos is an editor at Barnes & Noble Books. Her writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the United States.