The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

If you don’t like Theodore Roosevelt then I don’t think we can ever be friends. I can’t think of a situation where I’m willing to waive this requirement. We could possibly engage in a cordial working relationship where we never speak, but that seems unlikely.  Unfortunately this is a fundamental non-negotiable, carved into the front facing wall of my hippocampus, all in capitals and likely in Tahoma. (My favourite typeface)

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Theodore Roosevelt is my hero and I will stick fight any slanderers.

‘Late in the afternoon I played at single stick with General Wood and Mr. Ferguson. I am going to get your father to come on and try it soon. We have to try to hit as light as possible, but sometimes we hit hard, and today I have a bump over one eye and a swollen wrist.’

-An excerpt from a letter written to James A. Garfield on the 26 December 1902, by President Roosevelt.

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Δ I have a signed picture of Theodore Roosevelt on the wall in the passage that leads to my study. I bought it for $5 in a antique shop in upstate Maine. It didn’t have a price on it and the old lady behind the register didn’t seem to know who it was. I stared at her incredulously but she seemed genuine in her ignorance. She remarked that he was ‘quite handsome’ and then happily accepted my offer of $5. Although unlikely to be genuine it makes me happy.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt was first published in 1979. Which is auspicious because it is both the year of my birth and the title of my favourite Smashing Pumpkins song. It is the first book in a trilogy written by Edmund Morris. His second book, Theodore Rex, was only published in 2001. That particular tome deals with Roosevelt’s presidency. The final book in the series is titled Colonel Roosevelt and was published in 2010. It deals with the epoch that is post presidency until his death. I haven’t read it, but I have read The River of Doubt by Candice Millard (also brilliant) which deals with Roosevelts Brazilian expedition which imminently precedes his passing.

On that expedition he contracted a tropical fever which almost killed him. This together with an assassin’s bullet weakened him substantially and likely lead to an early demise. It was commented on his passing, “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”

Theodore Roosevelt died on January 5, 1919 at 4am in the morning at age 60 when a venous blood clot travelled to his lungs. Something I can appreciate having experienced that particular malady.

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Δ An MRI of my lungs about a year ago, post embolism and subsequent express train to my lungs. Strangely I developed a clot on my right forearm just under my elbow. Which is apparently quite unusual. Possibly a boxing or Jiu-jitsu injury. It you’re going to go, might as well emulate your hero in death if you’re struggling to emulate him in life. Worked for Saint Peter.

For me Theodore Roosevelt’s life is the ultimate story of triumph. Born half bind, sickly, and asthmatic he managed nonetheless through sheer force of will to transform himself into a larger than life behemoth whose achievements are truly mind boggling.

Next time I’m wallowing in misery I need to remind myself that Roosevelt’s wife and then his mother died only eleven hours apart, one of typhoid the other of kidney failure and yet he still managed, although grief stricken, to make a success of life. It’s only once you’ve read the book that you really get a sense of his achievements. I often found my myself feeling exhausted just from reading about all the things he somehow managed to accomplish.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize and the 1980 National Book Award. As an interesting aside, the author Edmund Morris is nominally South African, albeit born in Nairobi. He attended Rhodes university and worked in Durban before eventually settling in the United States.

The book is relatively easy to read although weighty and a little intimidating at first. It is  meticulously researched, Roosevelt kept a journal and wrote in it almost daily. He also penned thousands of letters and wrote several books during his life so there’s not a lot of conjecture in this book, which is something I like in a biography.

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Δ The statue of Theodore outside the Natural History Museum (I love this place) in NYC, taken in 2015… I think. As for the controversy surrounding this statue, I think people see what they want to see.

Theodore Roosevelt stands as an example of what you can do with your life if you have the willpower to make it happen. Read this book.