About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Amazon Review of Colonel Roosevelt

Colonel Roosevelt
by Edmund Morris
2010, 784 pp

Link to my Amazon review

Edmund Morris's final volume of his magisterial biography of the "Republican Roosevelt" finishes well. As with the first two volumes, it is extraordinarily well written. Morris paints a colorful portrait of Roosevelt and his life, making the reader feel as if she knew Roosevelt intimately, and had experienced the events of his life as they unfolded. All told, it serves as a wonderful personal portrait of one of the most interesting men ever to serve as President. As he did in the previous volume covering the years in the White House, though, Roosevelt the political animal remains just outside of Morris's grip for the most part.

Colonel Roosevelt (his favorite form of address, even after departing the White House) opens with a stunning prologue detailing Roosevelt's post presidential African safari. It is here in his native Africa that Morris is at his best, describing the East African terrain and game as it existed in an almost primeval state at the beginning of the 20th century. He follows with a fascinating account of the subsequent whirlwind European tour, during which Roosevelt was treated as if he still were a head of state, even serving as Taft's special ambassador at the funeral of King Edward VII. Morris is not only interested in Roosevelt's actions and settings but his thoughts and intellect as well. Roosevelt's dynamic range of interests and extraordinarily educated mind are on display as Morris summarizes both his reading and writing on subjects having nothing to do with politics such as medieval history, nature and the relationship between science and history.

Morris's weakness as Roosevelt's biographer has always been his lack of a deep understanding of American political history, something that served to mar his biography of Ronald Reagan. One begins to understand Lewis Gould's (the author of a volume devoted to TR's Presidency) characterization of Morris's first volume ("Roosevelt's emergence as he (Roosevelt) would have described it"). Lacking an independent understanding of the period's politics, Morris is a bit too quick to present Roosevelt's perceptions as objective reality in many cases. For instance, opponents to his 1912 run for the Republican nomination are all "reactionaries" or simply bought men enjoying the patronage of the "Taft Machine." There is, simply, no principled opposition to Roosevelt in Morris's account. The 42 states without direct primaries are boss-controlled "democratic shams," as if there was nothing in between the direct rule by the people and the dictates of self-serving political bosses. Roosevelt would have likely viewed it this way and Morris is simply not in a position to evaluate his views or serve the reader as a guide on such matters. This is less of a problem in Colonel Roosevelt, however, as politics is no longer the dominant theme as it was in its predecessor volume.

Coming close to 2000 pages, Morris's three volumes will remain the most comprehensive account of Theodore Roosevelt's life we have. It is so well written that even those who aren't TR aficionados will likely enjoy reading at least some of it (I'd recommend the first volume). Still, Morris leaves much to say about many aspects and events of Roosevelt's life and times for future historians, especially in the political realm.

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