Book Review by Orlay Johnson
Whether you have only thought of Teddy Roosevelt as a stuck-up war-mongering aristocrat or as the first modern and progressive US President, I think you will like this book. It is well researched, detailed, and a fun read. The book focuses on Teddy’s (Theodore, to his friends) preservationist side, addressing the questions of how, why, and when he went from a rich city kid, with little formal schooling, to perhaps most effective conservationist in US history. For at least 100 years, he protected more of America’s natural real estate than all other presidents combined. True the book does ignore most of his the war mongering, but in other ways does not hesitate to show his weaknesses and class blindness. However, above all else, it brings us a wealth of new information and insights, not only about TR, but also about America and our history of resource exploitation at the cost of human and environmental devastation. I think it is must for anyone serious about making America greener, not to mention it is a fun read.
Yes the book is dense and long (over 800 pages of text) and it is only the latest in a long line of biographies on this President. So a good question might be, is this really worth it? Yeah, it really is.
Why? To start, it is written by author, Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University, who knows how to write readable best sellers about famous Americans and events: Rosa Parks, FDR, Gerald Ford, Katrina, and Ron Reagan to name a few. I have read several of these books, and I think this is perhaps his best. Plus, and this is not a minor point today, the paperback is only $20.
Here are two items I liked about the book: one item leans toward trivial (if not titillation), the other is more serious.
I have never understood the stoic Puritanism that runs so strongly through all of Roosevelt life, influencing most strongly his personal relationships, but also his politics. Because Brinkley gives us a wealth of background on TR’s upbringing (including backgrounds on childhood books and their main characters), and family relationships, including info on a favorite uncle, Robert B. Roosevelt, I think this mystery is partly solved. I will let you investigate this on your own in the book, but will say that while Uncle Bob is considered one of the fathers of fish conservation in America, and was one of the leaders in bringing down “Boss Tweed”, he was also many other things. So much so that the Roosevelt family blacklisted him and hid his papers and diaries for almost 100 years – probably at the instigation of TR’s beloved father. Not only were there Irish involved (a scandal to a Knickerbocker all by itself), but territorial markings, which give a whole new meaning to the term “going green”.
The second item is Brinkley’s portrayal of Roosevelt’s childhood education. As marine educators, this book emphasizes extreme the importance of allowing kids to discover nature and wildlife at an early age. If TR had not been given the opportunity to explore the wild world, the landscape of American would be vastly different.
Theodore Roosevelt’s education was not like other Americans. Because of his parent’s wealth and his bouts with asthma, he never when to a formal school until Harvard, instead had tutors at home and during the many trips his father took the family on for “educational” purpose (Egypt, Palestine, Great Britain, and Germany to name a few). Consequently, Roosevelt had a completely different learning pro- file that others, and what he learned in particularly was biology, natural history and hunting. But not just any natural history – at a very early age he develop a knowledge (and a museum) that was the equivalent of any professional. As an example, Charles Darwin had recently published “The Origin of Species” and Roo- sevelt carried the book with him at all times reading it obsessively. By an early he was as knowledgeable of the recent scientific advances of his day and as skilled an ornithologist and mammalogist as any professional biologist.
As an aside — it is also probably worthwhile to note that he planned to be a professional biologist right up until the time he took his first classes in biology at Harvard. He did well in the classes academically, but found them so boring, he switched to political science. A potentially brilliant scientist lost to the dark side once again.
Consequently, TR was not the usual politician who only uses an outdoorsy cowboy/brush cutting image simply to get elected (although he certainly used that image every chance he got), but rather, he was a highly trained naturalist whose love of nature and wildlife runs through every political and personal decision in his life. His beliefs and actions regarding conservation and preservation in politics were not superficial PR, they were the core of his being. He did not want to preserve animals and birds just so he could shoot more of them – he truly cared about nature and wildlife and worked to preserve America’s natural legacy for all future generations. You might say he was truly out of step with his times, but by the force of his personality, he convinced others to join his own march.
This is all my personal interpretation gleamed from the, but we should not exclude his actual conservation achievement, way too numerous to list here. Instead just a summary, but an impressive one:
• He doubled the number of National Parks during his terms in office (from 5 to 10)
• He created 150 national forests, 51 Federal Bird Reserves, 4 National Game Preserves, 18 National Monuments, and 24 Reclamation Projects.
• He passed the Antiquities Act of 1906 that allowed the federal government to protect as national monuments history or prehistoric structures, landmarks, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.
• He enacted legislation that protected much of the Grand Canyon as a Monument and National Game Preserve, leading to its National Park status in 1919.
During his term more than 230 million acres of land was conserved – more than by all future presidents combined.
I recommend the book. Yes, it is a long historical narrative, but I found it inspiring, full of fascinating information, and vastly fun to read. Oh that we had such politicians today.
Orlay Johnson works for the National Marine Fisheries Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is a member of the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators (NAME). This review originally appeared in Scuttlebutt, the newsletter for the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators (NAME).