Teddy Roosevelt was a unique and fascinating individual. David McCullough writes his Mornings on Horseback as an investigation into what made him that way.
As always, McCullough accomplishes the task with such skill that given sufficient uninterrupted time, one might want to finish it in a day.
Roosevelt was nothing if not the product of a strong and close knit family. He was a part of a tightly bonded and mutually supportive clan. Surely he was uniquely gifted and had unparalleled access to privileges and opportunities so beyond most of us that we would never dream of them. (When are YOU planning to take a year off and tour Europe? What, you haven’t planned it?) When he was at Harvard, his income from his father’s estate was nearly double that which the president of Harvard was receiving in income (a massive $8000/year).
Clearly he was a child of privilege and the greatest of his privileges was his family. There was a ‘tightness’ between his siblings and himself and his parents that defined them all. He greatly honored his father and was certain that he would never live up to the standard of public service and compassion his father evidenced. In reality, so greatly did he exceed the stature of his father, that he obliterated it. History now forgets that there was a Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., a man of great public service and vision, who not only weekly cared for orphans at a home for boys, but also was instrumental, among other accomplishments, in founding New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History.
Critics might find room to challenge aspects of Roosevelt family life, but whose life would escape such scrutiny? Family life, or its lack, has a profound impact on a child’s life, which is clearly on display here. And it is good.
Given the tendency of many to stand in awe of one of such stature, Geoffsnook asks rightfully about the existence of TR’s warts. There are two ways to skew a biography. One is to set out to smear a man by putting only the worst spin on what he is reported to have done. The other is to present a treatise which overlooks the faults and paints everything in the finest of pastels.
David McCullough never writes about people he does not admire. He admires Roosevelt and is clearly captivated by the power of the entire family. And yet we never get the impression that he is glossing over anything. He is careful to debunk several mythologies about Roosevelt that other, less critical biographers, might allow to stand. He details Roosevelt’s odd neglect of his first wife and child from his later autobiographical works. TR comes across with warts. I retain my trust in David McCullough as a reporter truly ‘fair and balanced’.
There is no moral to the story, no ‘go and do likewise’ exhortation attached to this life. What we have here is a window cracked upon a fascinating person set in a story engagingly, as always, told.