Morris puts Teddy Roosevelt to rest in fulsome fashion
Book Review: "Colonel Roosevelt," by Edmund Morris. Random House, $35.
December 12, 2010 5:00 AM
Theodore Roosevelt attended a Loyal Order of Moose convention in Pittsburgh in 1917. Mayor Joseph Armstrong is on the left.
By James McGrath Morris
Opening up Edmund Morris' third and final volume of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt is akin to listening to a movement of a symphony. The parts cannot be considered without the whole.
Mr. Morris has penned 1,882 pages about the iconic president whose life has generated almost as many books as Abraham Lincoln. (We're not done yet. Doris Kearns Goodwin is also at work on a biography.)
The first volume, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," published in 1979, was a best-seller, a Pulitzer Prize winner and established Mr. Morris as one of the nation's premier biographers. So touted was he that he was soon lured into becoming the court's official scribe during the Reagan administration.
As most readers know, the result was the disastrous "Dutch," in which he added fictional characters to his authorized story of the president, creating a storm of controversy.
Mr. Morris produced the second volume of his Roosevelt biography in 2000. Called "Theodore Rex," it rescued Mr. Morris' reputation and left him with the task of bringing Roosevelt's story to its end. Now, 31 years since the appearance of the first volume, Mr. Morris delivers "Colonel Roosevelt."
Looking at the books as a whole, 70 percent of Roosevelt's life is portrayed in the first installment leaving the remainder to be divided between two others volumes. Reading the second, and now the third, it feels as though the brakes have been applied on a fast-moving narrative.
The high-speed journey of the first book slows down to cover the eight years of Roosevelt's presidency and the 10 years remaining in his life after leaving the White House.
In the second volume this made sense because these were the penultimate years of Roosevelt's life. In the third, however, the vast expanse of pages begs for some judicious "word-ectomy."
Nonetheless, fans of Roosevelt and the authors will be mightily rewarded if they read the whole book.
Mr. Morris picks up his story when the ex-president embarks on safari. Written in the present tense, as he did with the opening of his first book, he works hard to engage the reader. Perhaps too hard, as when he describes his subject perched above the train's cowcatcher steaming across an East African plateau. "Even when culture is at its most primitive, as here," he writes, "something deep inside him identifies with it, and thrills at the narrowness of the gap."
Following Roosevelt back home from Africa and a triumphant European tour, Mr. Morris masterly portrays the rising tension between Roosevelt and his handpicked successor. Already President Howard Taft found simply governing under the shadow of the most famous man in the world difficult.
In one of the author's renowned use of the telling detail, Taft writes to Roosevelt, "When I am addressed as 'Mr. President,' I turn to see whether you are not at my elbow."
Now Taft realized what he had been given might be taken away by his benefactor. Others have written about the drama of the ex-president challenging his successor and Mr. Morris's narrative offers nothing factually new, but it shines in elucidation.
As a man who has spent practically a lifetime studying Roosevelt, Mr. Morris frequently sums up in a single insightful and brilliant paragraph a book's worth of interpretation. Here is but a portion of one such moment:
"Actually Roosevelt was struggling, as throughout his life, between the need for power and the consequences of responsibility. It was a struggle he had never been able to wholly resolve: indeed, its contrary tensions held him together. He wanted to destroy Taft because Taft had failed. He was determined Taft should succeed because Taft was an extension of himself."
After the election of 1912, where although Roosevelt loses to Woodrow Wilson he humiliates Taft who ran third, "Colonel Roosevelt" looses steam, not necessarily for a lack of drama but for the lack of restraint. One gets the sense that Mr. Morris is reluctant to give up his lifelong partnership with Roosevelt.
Fortunately Roosevelt is still story-worthy. The candidate turns explorer again and dashes off to the Amazon, almost losing his life, battles in court, where his reputation is at stake and uses what little political power remaining to assail Wilson's slowness to come to the aid of America's allies in the Great War.
But unlike more recent war-making presidents, Roosevelt would feel the pain of his advocacy when war came at last. His youngest and probably favorite son, Quentin, is killed in battle. The consummate saber rattler is "heard sobbing in the stable of Sagamore Hills, with his face buried in the mane of his son's pony: 'Poor Quentyquee."
As with each of Mr. Morris' volumes, some readers will find the author's style of stringing together anecdotes and scenes in quilt-like fashion unimaginative, almost a short cut to book writing. But on a tapestry as grand and expansive as he has written, such complaints are minor and noticeable only when the work is studied close at hand.
"Colonel Roosevelt" is a triumphant conclusion to one of the great American biographies.
James McGrath Morris, no relation to Edmund Morris, is the author of "Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power" and the editor of the monthly Biographer's Craft.