I have read several biographies of Teddy Roosevelt. I don’t know of any particular reason. I guess part of it is the time he served is an interesting part of history and part is an on-going quest to understand him. It’s interesting because more so than any other figure I’ve read about multiple biographies on (except maybe Abraham Lincoln), people tend to try to make of Teddy Roosevelt what they want him to be and to judge him by modern standards. The one I read before this was particularly bad and tried their best to make him a modern Liberal Democrat, so maybe part of the positive glow on this book is reflected on how poor that one was.
This biography is the best on him I’ve read so far and no wonder considering David McCullough wrote it. He resisted the temptation to re-make TR for the most part. McCullough’s only slip in this regard of putting modern sensibilities on a 19th century man is his reaction to TR’s naturalist activities. At that time naturalists documented nature by killing and stuffing it. There was a whole culture of collecting natural specimans and I don’t think there was anything particularly odd about how he did it except that he had the money to go more exotic places than many did and that he attacked it with his characteristic gusto. McCullough admits that no one at the time reported it as something odd, but he still insists that it was somehow.
What makes this biography especially interesting and enlightening is that unlike most biographies on him, which focus on his middle years from the time he enters national politics on, this one starts with who his parents were before they met, their family backgrounds, their very different takes on the world, which they ultimately fused into one on everything but the politics of the Civil War (she was raised in the South and was a Southern Sympathizer throughout – he worked to help the soliders of the Northern army). Teddy idolized his father and was devoted to his mother and McCullough shows this impact on his later life. It wasn’t just a close family life, but his father’s interests, his choices for educating his children, and how the whole family used to take around the world trips that lasted years that impacted his future “by choosing these particular parents.” (Inside RWL joke) It also talks about his time at college, his first marriage, his time in the west, and how his second marriage came about. It even talks about what his little daughter Alice was doing all that time he was gone. It certainly helps you understand his daughter Alice in a way no other biography I’ve read on him does. If you really want to understand how Teddy Roosevelt thinks, this is the book for you. McCullough might have taken a page from Rose Wilder Lane who called her biography of Herbert Hoover’s early life The Making of Herbert Hoover, this much more robust book is definitely “the Making of Teddy Roosevelt.” For those then ready to take on his later life, follow this up with The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and his Family in Peace and War by Edward J. Renehan Jr.
Alice Roosevelt is also a very interesting person. How many people do you know that have a color named in their honor (Alice Blue)? Just this morning I was recommended to read a new picture book about her, WHAT TO DO ABOUT ALICE? by Barbara Kerley.