Summer Series 2010: Reviewing the Books! continues……
This summer I read the autobiography of America’s greatest near-great president. It was partly a memoir but mostly idiosyncratic, stream of consciousness commentary by TR, who seemingly grew bored with attempting a dry recounting of his life within the first few dozen pages and launched into a series of never-ending and generally entertaining digressions. Teddy regales the reader with honest beat cops in New York slums, crooked saloonkeeping politicians, rugged cowboys in the twilight of the Old West, ramrod straight Army officers, genteel Harvard men, desperados, captive madmen, wild animals in locales from the silence of nature to the sound of battle with orders barked over the cries of wounded men. Every story involves a fistfight, a gun, a test of integrity and manly honor where respectable men who are “right square” do their duty without complaint and few concessions, except perhaps to a glass of whiskey “taken for medicinal purposes”.
My God, to have a president like that again!
Theodore Roosevelt was an accomplished historian and polished writer and was capable of scholarly work, such as his first book on The Naval War of 1812, or of focused popular history as in his books on the West or his account of his fabled volunteers in the Spanish-American War, The Rough Riders ( I have a 1920 edition); his autobiography is not that kind of book. While historians regard Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir as the greatest written by an American president, Roosevelt’s has a different quality. His voice comes through on the pages; it is more like he is sitting in a chair in his study at Sagamore Hill, talking to you directly, gesticulating, shouting, laughing, leaping up like a jack-in-the-box, leaning forward, face fierce with emphasis and good humor.
Roosevelt would have been a natural blogger.
The autobiography has it’s weaknesses. Despite his ability to cunningly turn a phrase, TR could have used the services of a stern editor. There are parts of this book, particularly in his recounting of minor legislative battles with creatures of the New York political machines that wander at times into redundancy and tediousness. Roosevelt’s periodic expositions into public morality and social problems of his day have a weird conflation of victorian prudishness and liberal noblesse oblige that can run so contradictory that the modern reader wonders which sentiment represents Roosevelt’s real views and which have been judiciously added for public consumption. Outspoken and impetuous in person, TR’s autobiography bears the imprint of an author who has repeatedly gone back and toned down or qualified original judgments or recollections and excised names to spare others embarrassment. Roosevelt was in many ways, a product of his era and his class.
The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt is not a great book but is still a good read after over a hundred years since Teddy Roosevelt last sat in the Oval Office. That’s praise enough.