The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
- Author: Douglas Brinkley
- ISBN 13: 9780060565312
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- Published: May, 2010
- Pages: 960
- Language: English
- Format: PDF, EPUB
- Price: $13.59
One of the Best Books of the Year
The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Kansas City Star, The Chicago Tribune, and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
In this monumental biography, acclaimed historian Douglas Brinkley examines the life and achievements of Theodore Roosevelt, our “naturalist president,” and his tireless crusade for the American wilderness—a legacy now more important than ever.
Amazon Best of the Month, August 2009: “The movement for the conversation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.” So wrote Theodore Roosevelt, known as the “naturalist President” for his efforts in protecting wildlife and wilderness, merging preservation and patriotism into a quintessential American ideal. The Wilderness Warrior, Douglas Brinkley’s massive(ly readable) new biography, intrepidly explores the wilderness of influences (Audubon and Darwin), personal relationships (Muir and Pinchot), and frontier adventures (too many to mention) that shaped Roosevelt’s proto-green views. Topping 800 pages (ironically, one wonders how many trees fell for the first printing), The Wilderness Warrior makes an excellent companion to Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn and Ken Burns’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. –Jon Foro
From The New Yorker
Theodore Roosevelt spent the day of July 1, 1908, the tenth anniversary of the Battle of San Juan Hill, creating forty-five national forests. In this biographical study of T.R.’s campaign to save hundreds of millions of acres of wilderness, Brinkley writes that “the forestry movement would be forced down his opponents’ throats.” Roosevelt’s intense love for nature was, Brinkley makes clear, a conqueror’s love—triumphal Darwinism—and included a “blood lust” in hunting the wildlife he championed. The baby bear that, in popular myth, T.R. refused to shoot was actually an adult bear that he directed to be dispatched with a knife. Brinkley fully inhabits Roosevelt’s mind, a condition that has its disadvantages—the book, with blow-by-blow accounts of college hiking trips and squabbles between naturalists, does not entirely earn its nine hundred pages, making it harder to see the forests (and the story of how T.R. rescued them) for the trees.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Drawing on unpublished research on Theodore Roosevelt and the rise of conservationism in America—no small task, considering the many biographies on Roosevelt published over the last decade—Brinkley offers a weighty tome that, while shedding new insight into the former president’s environmentalism, tends to overwhelm with detail and, according to some critics, underwhelm with substance. Over two decades and more than two dozen books, Brinkley has mastered the art of balancing scholarship and research with readability. In Wilderness Warrior, though, the author’s affinity for his subject and the vastness of the literature on Roosevelt get in the way of a message that might have been made clearer with some prudent cutting.
Most helpful reviews
A tour de force on Roosevelt the Environmental Activist
I’m sure many of you are wondering whether we really need another biography of Theodore Roosevelt. After all, there has been a spate of other biographies on the man, from Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex to Kathleen Dalton’s Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life. In short, the answer is YES, this is an essential TR biography. Even if you have read all of those other books (as I have), Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America is a vital addition to our understanding of TR as a man, a politician, and an environmental activist.
Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior argues that Teddy Roosevelt was not simply a politician who cared about nature, but that his life as a naturalist permeated his entire outlook on life and use of political power. He goes further by arguing that TR was a committed preservationist who sought to protect nature forever, not just a “utilitarian” conservationist who sought to protect natural resources for later exploitation – despite his affinity for hunting.
The first part of the book documents TR’s fascination with wildlife and the outdoors as a young child. Even by the age of 10, he had established a small “museum” of his favorite wildlife specimens (which he later donated to the Smithsonian and American Museum of Natural History). Brinkley portrays a young TR excitedly studying the radula (mouthparts) of small mollusks – hardly what one would imagine as the hobby of a future president. Brinkley also digs up some less appreciated influences on young TR. For example, he shines a light on Robert B. Roosevelt, TR’s “black sheep” uncle who became a prominent advocate for fish conservation in New York and probably played a key role in encouraging TR’s activism. Right up until college, Brinkley recalls how TR seemed destined for a career as a biologist. However, at Harvard, he became bored with lab biology and found another avocation – politics.
The next chapters show how TR continued his passion for nature even while pursuing a political career. Some of the stories – such as his trips to the Badlands after his mother and first wife Alice both died – are well known, but Brinkley fills them with rich detail. More interesting are the events that receive scant attention in most TR biographies. Even after spending years immersed in U.S. environmental history, I never realized that TR had founded the very first nationally effective environmental advocacy NGO (the Boone and Crocket Club). Brinkley brings this group to life by recalling the personalities in the group, such as naturalist George Bird Grinnell, and the groups publications. Throughout this, TR wrote acclaimed books about the American West, his hunting exploits, and endangered species. It is fascinating to see TR heatedly debating species classification with the government biologist C. Hart Merriam, while TR was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and many biologists now agree with TR’s position no less!). In short, as Brinkley makes clear, even if he had never become president, TR would have been an important historical figure in raising awareness of the natural heritage of the American West.
However, of course TR was destined to play a much greater role as president. Much of the rest of the book shows how TR used the presidency to advance what Brinkley considers the most ambitious and meaningful conservationist agenda in U.S. history. At the stroke of a pen, TR would designate vast tracts of U.S. wilderness as National Refuges. When deciding to make Pelican Island, Florida, a Federal Bird Reservation, TR simply stated “I So Declare It”! In the end, Brinkley notes that TR not only protected some of our most important natural sites, such as the Grand Canyon, but also pushed for the laws and improvised the tools that would allow future presidents to follow in his footsteps.
One things I really love about this book is that it stays focused on TR the naturalist. With a personality as engaging as Teddy Roosevelt, there is material enough to fill several biographies (not that this book is short – it’s over 800 pages!). Fortunately, Brinkley never meanders too far into other aspects of TR’s life, which means the book remains fresh. Every page has a new and exciting anecdote that is probably unfamiliar to all but hardcore TR fans. Furthermore, by staying so close to his theme, Brinkley shows just how deeply conservationist philosophies pervaded TR’s life. For example, TR fell in love with Darwin’s theories of evolution at a young age and later used them to justify his foreign policy exploits. After reading this book, I came away with a renewed appreciation of TR as a politician and a man (could you ever imagine George Bush or Barack Obama “roughing it” out West?).
On the other hand, anybody interested in U.S. political history or environmentalism will find this book a treasure trove. Brinkley provides enough background on TR and U.S. history at the time so readers can follow along. Moreover, he writes well and makes every incident an adventure. The book has everything from hunting tales to political campaigning to battle skirmishes. Rather than feeling like 800 pages, you’ll wish Brinkley had added another 400.
In fact, my only criticism of the book is that Brinkley should have kept on writing. I know the poor guy had to finish the book somewhere. The book ends when TR leaves the presidency in 1908, but the adventures didn’t stop there. TR took trips to East Africa and the Amazon River in Brazil on hunting and scientific expeditions. Surely these influenced TR’s views of nature. Fortunately, Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey and TR’s own African Game Trails: An Account of the African Wanderings of an American Hunter-Natrualist cover these exploits. However, I would have been interested in learning more about TR’s 1912 campaign as the Bull Moose candidate from The Wilderness Warrior’s conservationist perspective. Hopefully, Brinkley can add some commentary in a revised edition on these episodes and how they influenced TR’s views on conservation.
In short, I can’t recommend this book enough. It is something rare in biographies of famous politicians – it is both well-written and original. However, don’t take my word – check out this brief excerpt from Vanity Fair earlier this summer: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2009/05/teddy-roosevelt-excerpt200905. In addition, if you like this book, you might also want to read Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (Pioneers of Conservation), about TR’s righthand man in the U.S. Forest Service.
TR: Conservationist, environmentalist and the first “Green” President
By Todd Bartholomew
Theodore Roosevelt’s life was packed so full with so many interests it’s easy for an author to focus on one aspect of it rather than writing a sprawling biography. Brinkley opts to focus on Teddy the conservationist and environmentalist for “The Wilderness Warrior” and there is no shortage of material to draw from as Roosevelt was drawn to nature from the time he was a child. The subject of Roosevelt’s interest in nature has been touched on in other sprawling biographies by Nathan Miller, Edmund Morris and others, but few have focused as specifically on Roosevelt’s environmentalism quite as well or as in-depth as Brinkley does here. Like many Victorians, Roosevelt was typically eclectic, collecting and preserving specimens of a wide variety of animals which he prominently displayed in his homes, jokingly calling it the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.” He also kept a wide variety of unusual pets and this interest in the biodiversity of the environment around him was likely spurred by what he was reading as much as by the rapidly changing world around him. But that eclectic interest changed to serious ambition when Roosevelt ventured to the Dakotas in the late 1880s.
There is a tendency to think that Roosevelt’s interest in conservationism lay dormant from his time in the Dakotas until he became President, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth; which ultimately is part of why Brinkley wrote this book. Rather than compartmentalizing conservationism, it was an essential part of Roosevelt’s core being and beliefs, something Brinkley makes quite clear. Freed of having to tell the whole story of Roosevelt’s life Brinkley is able to focus on how conservationism was always near and dear to Roosevelt’s heart and informed much of his life. And while Roosevelt’s early interest in nature and travels to the Dakotas have been told countless times before, there is a freshness here that is found in Brinkley’s other books. Brinkley is able to explore Roosevelt’s fascination with nature in far greater detail than other authors would have dared that allows readers to see Roosevelt as though for the first time. Brinkley is also freed to focus on Roosevelt’s activism once he becomes President without having to wade into covering all the other aspects of his presidency. Perhaps the strangest part is that Brinkley largely ends with Roosevelt’s presidency. This is so strange especially since Roosevelt’s ill-fated trip down the Amazon would have been a rather fitting coda for this story. Perhaps Brinkley felt “River of Doubt” covered that sufficiently and wanted Roosevelt to go out on a high note. It certainly doesn’t detract from the book and it’s rare that I would ever say 800+ pages left me wanting more, but that is indeed the case here. “The Wilderness Warrior” reads like the adventure that it is. There is more detail crammed in here then I ever imagined and yet it is one of the best biographies on Roosevelt I’ve ever read, despite narrowly focusing on one aspect of his very exciting and action packed life. If anything it will make readers wish for another environmentalist like Theodore Roosevelt to come along; what we’ve had since then have by and large been pale imitators.
Simply the BEST book on Teddy Roosevelt !!!!!
WOW. Its rare I get a book and sit and leaf thru it in complete awe. This is a book I have wanted for so so long.In fact I plan on buying extra copies for my county library system, since we here in the Sierras in Mark Twain country, so appreciate top books with such wonderful research and information that is so well written that you literally do NOT want to put the book down. And its a book that you will read and re read and re read and get something new from each time you read it.
Having grown up in a wild west, environmentalist mined family where when we backpacked we got daily lectures on leaving an area so that it looked like we have never been there, Theodore Roosevelt was akin to my families favorite relative, university professor, religious advisor and common sense favorite friend. And this book shows we were right on.
Douglas Brinkley is an A+ author and one can only imagine the hours, days, months and years he put into researching Theodore Roosevelt, because the book covers ALL areas of the United States and even international areas that the President lived and fought for. And reading the book you get the sense you are there, listening to the President demand we care for the earth and the open spaces this great country offers.
Especially interesting to me is how during the past election we heard candidates from different political parties evoke the name of Teddy Roosevelt, yet in reading the book one wonders just how much did or do these folks even know of the man. And I so hope the book will light a fire under people to demand that we always fun the open spaces we have as parks and natural preserves. And I didn’t even know West Virginia had a state of the art naturalist center for the Fish and Wildlife folks under the Department of the Interior.
And the books is honest in pointing up the few mistakes Teddy Roosevelt made, while also noting he was probably the last or even one of the few totally honest Presidents we have had. He was known to have never lied. And while he did hunt and fish, as my family does, he also understood well the role of herd management in a responsible and humane manner.
As a walk the talk conservative I remind people that conserve and conservation go hand in hand with me being a conservative.
I always wondered why Teddy Roosevelt’s face was on Mount Rushmore. Now I don’t. He belongs there at least as much as the others there and I owe that knowledge to this book.
Wilderness Warrior is an account of the life-long naturalist who gave us most of our National Parks, Monuments and game reserves. From his precocious youth, Teddy (he hated that name) was captivated by nature and driven with a desire to know, record and collect the plants and, in particular, the animals of our world.
With a zest for life and action, TR burst into every room he entered with such enthusiasm that all were swept away. Never afraid of confronting entrenched power, as President he relentlessly put the office to use saving wild places for the future as an environmentalist far ahead of the movement we know today. He belongs on Mt. Rushmore not only for this work but also because he had a special affection for the Badlands and Black Hills area.
Never one to let physical discomfort keep him from action, he was always out front in the wild, looking for big game, but at the same time sensitive to the flowers and birds around him.
This is one big book but I was never bored in the 800 pages because TR’s life is so fascinating, action filled and associated with so many colorful characters of a type that has largely disappeared. Never one to be pompous, TR loved to associate with outdoorsmen and the quirkier the better. He’d sit right down at the campfire and trade adventure stories until the flames died down. Similarly, there was always time at the White House for a visit from a friend in from the West. This didn’t keep him from affectionate friendships with such as John Muir and John Burroughs. Brinkley’s accounts of Roosevelt’s vacation escapes from the White House are hilarious reading. The man in many ways remained a fun-loving child and was a wonderful father and husband.
To top it off, Roosevelt was an outstanding writer, author of several respected books on wildlife and right at home with the leading authorities on wildlife at the time.
I was set straight on TR’s Cuban experience during the Spanish American War. Though full of chest-pounding Americanism, he was a bold and respected leader of the Rough Riders, displaying courage and compassion for his men that kept them at his side long after the war was over.
Wilderness Warrior is great history, vivid and affecting. I challenge anyone to read this book and not turn the last page with a close bond to TR, a man to whom we owe so much and of whom most these days (including me until now) know very little.
Bound Miami SunPost November 15, 2009
The Rough Riding Tree Hugger
Teddy Roosevelt’s Deep Green Militancy
There’s a good reason why Teddy Roosevelt’s mug is on Mount Rushmore. Because of all the president’s, he’s the one who’s legacy is large enough to stand alongside the likes of Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson. Like our first president, Roosevelt was a war hero, even if the fight he fought was in but “a splendid little war.” Like Lincoln, Roosevelt had a stoic self-reliance, and he never let the fact that he was born in the lap of luxury dispel the notion that he too knew how to rough it. And like Jefferson, Roosevelt was something of a polyglot, as likely to be writing a biography of Oliver Cromwell as he would be conducting a study in ornithology. More importantly, the rough-riding, 26th President of these United States made of himself a myth that he never once failed to live up to.
Much of that myth, as it were, involves America’s wilds, the birds and the beasts and the fields and the streams and the forests that make this such a bucolic land. And T.R., as he was commonly called, spent the whole of his life ensuring they’d be around forever.
So it is with great good pleasure that we greet Douglas Brinkley’s deliciously eruditious The Wilderness Warrior: Teddy Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (Harper $34.99), a book that is biography in name alone. Sure it’s another in a long line of presidential lives. But Brinkley skews everything to the land, and in so doing shows that Roosevelt was more than just a mythic figure; he was the first Green President.
From the get, T.R. was enamored with nature. Born a mere year before Darwin unleashed The Origin of the Species, Teddy’s life ran completely concurrent with the book, and by age 10 or 11, “the biologist was his touchstone, a Noah-like hero.” Even before that though, Teddy, forced to the country by ill health, had become “a skilled field birder,” and was so touched by wildlife that he “saw the face of God” in a fox.
This was not an instance of a child being taken in by Aesop’s Fables or Mother Goose. In fact, writes Brinkley, “the cuteness of anthropomorphized animals annoyed” the young lad. And “once Roosevelt grasped the concept of natural selection,” he’d study “the anomalies of the natural world” with “a Darwinian eye.”
But Darwin wasn’t the only hero to the boy. Prior to The Origin, Roosevelt would cart around a copy of David Livingstone’s mammoth Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. And once Thomas Huxley got on board with Darwin’s theorizing (and in fact, became “Darwin’s bulldog”), young Ted placed the British biologist at the top of his to know list. Beyond that there were the 75 works of Irish adventure writer Captain Mayne Reid, “a school tutor turned frontiersman on the Missouri and Platte rivers [who:] wrote about the ‘Wilderness Out There’ in a highly romantic way, as in a cowboy western.” It is that juxtaposition of science and adventure which formed the basis of Roosevelt’s life – and his myth.
Unbeknownst to me, a large part of Roosevelt’s early environmentalism concerned Florida, a state which he frequented often and where he never failed to find joy. Responding to women’s rage for plumage, he turned Pelican Island into a Federal Bird Reservation (and ‘set the stage for the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System’). And Roosevelt’s fondness for herons, terns and ibises would lead him to insist, as president, “that killing one of these Florida exotics was a federal crime.”
Unlike John James Audobon, who traversed our entire state with a paint box in one hand and a gun in the other, Roosevelt was of a more Thoreau-like mind when it came to “the war on the wilderness.” Unlike the hermit of Walden Pond however, Roosevelt did align with the gentlemen hunters of the time. For they were the ones who actually helped preserve great swaths of the Northeast. Part of those initial efforts came about after the founding, with George Bird Grinnell, of the Boone and Crockett Club, that still-existing group that at one time or another had among their members General William Tecumseh Sherman and Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the United States Forest Service.
Brinkley briskly but thoroughly covers it all, until eventually reaching the crescendo we all know: the preservation of some 230 million acres of our most pristine and cherished lands, from Maine to Hawaii. He gets Roosevelt riding alongside the Southwestern bronco busters and cowboys as the Rough Riders take Kettle Hill in the Battle of San Juan Heights. He gets Roosevelt the Governor of New York who was ever ready to throwdown with a bit of wrestling or boxing in the executive mansion. And he gets Roosevelt the strategist, who’d circumvent the world if it meant saving another precious acre.
Mostly though, Brinkley gets Roosevelt the staunch advocate of “the strenuous life.” The man who came “up from asthma” to find himself fit as a fiddle and greeted each day with a robustness few could even fathom let alone duplicate. It’s the portrait of a man who willed himself into myth-hood. And a man who in so doing left the world – wild and otherwise – a much better place.
Let there be no question who the ‘environmental president’ was. Brinkley establishes that in meticulous, painstaking detail. I think I now know every bird TR observed, every book on nature he read, every park he created. A monograph would have been enough. Oh, there are great anecdotes and analyses here. But this bordered on Too Much Information. And the problem is that TR was not just a conservationist president. By focusing only on TR’s conservationist actions, Brinkley does TR and history a disservice.
For example, Brinkley tells wonderful stories about TR’s relationships with Booker T. Washington and Holt Collier, an African-American bear hunter and truly great character. Not a peep about the Brownsville incident though, which is Roosevelt’s low point. So, you are left with the belief that TR was the hippest president ever in regards to African-Americans, without a racist bone or tendency. Yet, TR was a product of his time, better than most, but not without issues. Also unintended, I’m sure, is the appearance that TR vacationed more than any other president. It seems so, because that is Brinkley’s focus. Not international policy, or trust-busting; but, rather, whether he slept in the open or under cover on his many hunting trips.
And, although Brinkley covers TR from birth with a microscope about his nature forays, he stops abruptly at the end of his presidency. I’m not complaining, mind you, but it’s ridiculously inconsistent. TR’s African trip still loomed.
I applaud the scholarship, and much of the writing. Yet, I would recommend the many full biographies, which give a fuller picture of the man himself, including his environmental efforts and love.
It is a testament to the fascinating life that Theodore Roosevelt led that this doorstop of a biography, The Wilderness Warrior, weighing in at over 800 pages, ends with Roosevelt leaving the presidency. It also has a singular emphasis–Roosevelt’s abiding passion for protecting the wilderness. As the subtitle suggests, he was a crusader with an evangelist’s zeal.
Douglas Brinkley has written an exhaustive study of Roosevelt’s almost radical approach to preserving wildlife and its habitation. There is a long look at his precocious childhood, when his enthusiasm for animals and worship of Darwinism made it look like he would become a naturalist. He had his own museum of stuffed animals in his bedroom in Manhattan, and his father would be one of the founders of the Museum of Natural History (Roosevelt would, in turn, help found the Bronx Zoo).
Brinkley branches off to take estuaries that cover other major figures in zoological and conservation history, as Roosevelt went to Harvard. He became disenchanted with a career in biology, though, and ended up in politics, but he never lost his love for nature (his critics said he was more interested in birds than in the Constitution). Brinkley lands on all the frequent stops–his ranching days in North Dakota, his stint as New York City police commissioner, Rough Rider warring against the Spanish in Cuba, Governor of New York, Vice-President, and then, at age 42, unexpectedly president. But those stops are filled in by Roosevelt as lover of the wild, with extensive details on his forays, whether they be youthful hikes in Maine, or hunting trips in Dakota.
Viewed in modern terms, Roosevelt’s attitude about animals contains a major contradiction–he loved them, but he also loved to hunt. He first went to Dakota out of concern that the buffalo were disappearing–before he had a chance to shoot one. He grew up a sickly child, and through his own efforts built himself into a “manly” man, and he maintained that American men must lead the “strenuous life” to avoid feminization, and that included hunting. (It also included war). He was never really dissuaded from this view, even by the likes of John Muir, who on an important meeting with Roosevelt at Yosemite during his presidency chastened him for the “boyish” fascination with killing things.
It was on a hunting trip to Mississippi that provided the inspiration for the Teddy Bear–Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear, because it was chained up and badly abused, and in his view not a sporting opportunity. The story and especially a political cartoon inspired two different toymakers to name stuffed bears after him, and the most popular toy that has ever been made was born (although he hated being called Teddy).
What Roosevelt did for preservation is the most lasting legacy of his presidency, and it is exhilarating to even contemplate it. As pointed out in my post on The National Parks, Roosevelt exploited a law called the Antiquities Act, which allowed him, with a stroke of a pen (and the spoken words “I so declare it”) to set aside land from development. He did this with impunity, and scoffed at those who criticized him for it. He declared bird refuges and national forests, so much that if you do the math it turns out he protected 80,000 acres a day for every day in his presidency.
Brinkley’s book doesn’t examine all of Roosevelt’s policy–it’s not a thorough biography. He does touch on the major aspects, but we don’t get the full effect of his presidency, particularly of his embrace of manifest destiny. We do get that he was loved by many (though not in the South, who wouldn’t forgive him for dining with Booker T. Washington in the White House), and he fought those in his own party, which seems impossible today. The book ends with his departure from the White House (he promised he would not run again, and almost instantly regretted it). Thus we don’t read about his safari to Africa, the 1912 presidential race, or his almost fatal trip to South America.
Brinkley’s prose is very accessible, and at times almost novelistic, as when he describes a family pet as “poem of a dog.” I really liked this passage: “Unfortunately, Roosevelt never published his campfire stories. With meat in the pot and log flames jumping high and low, on these outdoor outings Roosevelt would recount moments from the strenuous life with cliff-hanging suspense. There were accounts of sumo-wrestling with a 300-pound Japanese man; tramping toward the Mississippi River headwaters, boxing with the heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan, and encountering rattlesnakes in North Dakota. Holding his audience’s attention with theatrical gestures, Roosevelt made it seem as if he had strode over the Alleghenies and down the Ohio River valley with Daniel Boone.” He was the real life version of that guy in the Dos Equis commercials–the world’s most interesting man. He was the first president to publish a book while in office, and it wasn’t about politics, or economics, or foreign affairs–it was called The Deer Family.
The book does have a few problems. After a while one grows weary of yet another hunting trip, and he declared so many wilderness areas off limits that the accounts pile up like cord wood. And there are some shocking lapses in copy editing. We hear that Roosevelt loved the coincidence that Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day: February 22, 1803. Except that they were born on February 12, 1809. And consider this eye-opening sentence: “As every American schoolchild of Roosevelt’s generation knew, July 1, 1873, was when the Battle of Gettysburg began.” That’s funny, because of every schoolchild of my generation knows, it began on July 1, 1863.
Inspired by the book, I went to a place that has been a short drive for three decades that I had never been to–Sagamore Hill, his summer home on the north shore of Long Island. It is well worth the trip, with a guided tour through the home, which is heavily adorned with the trophies of his hunting trip. There is hardly a room that doesn’t have an animal’s head on the wall, or a rug made out of skin on the floor. A museum gives a quick but thorough look at his life, and his gravesite is a short drive down the road. Theodore Roosevelt was a great man, not without his faults. We could use his like again, right now.
Whew-I have finally reached the conclusion of this 950 page (small font, no less!!) behemoth that articulates, at times in excruciating detail, Teddy Roosevelt and his agenda towards conservation. A useful history that ignores everything else in TR’s complex, productive life, this book focuses exclusively on his love of wilderness and his eventual role in shaping environmental policy. The book really excels in its first half, which addresses TR’s pre-presidential life. Here we really appreciate TR as the budding naturalist; the staunch Darwinist who was destined for a career in science. In really effective prose, one can fully appreciate TR not as the progressive stalwart we remember him, but as the premiere naturalist author that initially brought him fame and national acclaim. It is during TRs presidency that the book becomes overly pedantic and highly tedious. One can only go into so much detail regarding TR’s passion for birding before frustration sets in. Also never satisfyingly answered is the paradoxical aspect of TR as a devoted conservationist and an overly blood-thirsty hunter. The author is a TR apologist in this regard; I’ve long since believed it is a relevant contradiction worth exploring. I mean, even as he was blasting irresponsible hunting practices, the dude went to great lengths to shoot everything that moved. (And I think every hunt he ever went on prior to leaving office is given space here.) Still, and importantly, the modern conservation, even preservation, movement owes great allegiance to his progressive environmental policies. There is great coverage of early important environmental crusaders – John Muir, Gilford Pinchot – as well. Still, this book would have been excellent at half its present length (still over 450 pages, mind you) and still achieved its same objective. Nevertheless, given the substantial literature that exists on Roosevelt, this is an important contribution, expanding on the fascinating complexity of this important president and allowing ample space for the beginnings and growth of an important movement.
(Oh, and there were typos in this 1st edition that pissed me off. Gettysburg occurred on July 1, 1873? Who missed that?
The word “epic” is an epidemic. It’s replacing “really cool” in the way we describe things like ice cream and fresh produce. So, when I ascribe the word to this book, I want to emphasize that it is not an accidental attribution. Rather, it is a sincere description of the book’s scope. It’s epic–phenomenally epic.
So epic that–when I finish books like these–I begin walking around with a chip on my shoulder. People tell me that’s how they feel after reading “Gone With the Wind.” Investing ample time and energy learning about any one subject (fictive or not) is deserving of praise. So forgive me if, after I finished, I half-expected people on the streets to see me, stop what they were doing and applaud my epic accomplishment.
I originally invested the time because TR is fascinating. Politically and personally, he’s a bundle of anomalies. For example, he’s the original and most powerful defender of nature conservation and yet spent lots of time hunting, killing and stuffing endangered species for his personal collection of trophies. Additionally, he believed in the commonplaces of mankind (championing civil rights 60 years ahead of the political curve), yet vocally denied worthiness-status to Native and African Americans. He cried out against the emasculation of society, yet was a dear and loving person–wholeheartedly embracing the emotional and aesthetic power of love and beauty (something rarely seen in the political sphere).
It did not take Brinkley a thousand pages to convey these strange and counterintuitive biographies. Rather, it took five. The rest of the time I was just overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of his research. At every turn (e.g., quoting and impacting boyhood journals–discerning and interpreting grammar/spelling mistakes), Brinkley stresses TR’s connection to nature. Every incident of natural merit receives attention. I would rarely call it overdescriptive, however. To me, the painstaking diligence seems necessary. Certainly I could have done without the myriad bird lists (every 40 pages or so, Brinkley fills a page with the names of birds TR saw at such-and-such a place), but those bird lists really made me FEEL the lull of ornothology. I don’t want to study it, but there’s a power in hearing that a president could name every taxonomically accepted species of bird. He could hear a call and instantly know its origin–genus and specie.
Honestly, I couldn’t help but compare him to–and, consequently, find myself a little disappointed in–the modern presidency. It seems people only speak in ideals anymore–Carter and Reagan had their morals, the rest had hope, change, profits and deficits. Is it weird to just want a president who can speak authoritatively about birds? Now that would really be epic.