Monday, November 11, 2013

Before He Was Famous

Last spring, it so happened that I visited Florence several times and then read later that year about the Florentine Renaissance in Durant. I hadn’t planned to visit Florence to coincide with the reading plan I’d made six years earlier; it just happened that way. This spring, I visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. (It was my fiftieth state. But this was no surprise to either the park ranger or the attendant at the state visitor center. It seems North Dakotans are used to their state being the last one fifty-staters get to. They have certificates congratulating travelers on reaching their fiftieth state, and one state tourism website has a page of pictures of everyone who has received the certificate.) And as it happened, this fall I’ve been reading David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback, which includes an extended section on Teddy Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota. I didn’t plan the trip around my reading, and I didn’t pick up Mornings on Horseback because I visited to North Dakota; it just worked out that way.

McCullough’s biography has the unusual feature of covering only the formative period of his subject’s life: the first thirty years or so. But the plan makes sense. Most Americans (well, most Americans who would pick up a book by David McCullough) know the Rough Rider, the conservationist who established so many national parks and national monuments, the Trustbuster. But how did a rich Manhattanite dandy become this famous character? This is the story McCullough wants to tell.

Devoting a whole book to the less famous half of Roosevelt’s life allows the McCullough to indulge himself in the periphery: some entire chapters center on people other than the twenty-sixth President. He devotes about one seventh of the text, for instance, to Roosevelt’s parents. One chapter concentrates on asthma, a disease from which “Teedie” suffered for most of his childhood. And yet it all clearly tells the story of one man. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. – the President’s father – for instance, exhibited and taught his family responsibility, truthfulness, public service, and the obligation of the rich toward the less fortunate, all traits his son is known for, as well. But the man who rode up San Juan Hill, the rich man who rounded up his own cattle on his North Dakota ranch, also had a mother. Mittie Roosevelt came from the Bulloch family of Georgia, southern aristocrats who valued physical courage, horsemanship, and military honor.

Can a person’s story unfold so straightforwardly? Can a man’s character be read so clearly in the circumstances of his family history and childhood conditions? Apparently it can if the man is as single-minded as Theodore Roosevelt. While it’s tempting to think that McCullough falsely simplified his story by selecting only the events and ideas that make sense of his subject, the man who said “Bully!” seems to have been particularly determined to shape himself according to his family’s expectations. Living up to both the tireless altruism of the Roosevelt’s and the demanding adventurism of the Bulloch’s wouldn’t come to a scrawny asthmatic without unflagging effort. And so his father counseled him when he was ten. Theodore, Sr. told young Teedie that he had the mind for greatness but not that body and that if he were ever to leave a mark on the world he would have to overcome his physical debilities. It may have been the most effectual father-to-son talk ever given in the history of the world.

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