American history, biographies, Candice Millard, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Edmund Morris, H.W. Brands, Henry Pringle, Jean Yarbrough, John Blum, Kathleen Dalton, Nathan Miller, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize, Theodore Roosevelt, William Harbaugh
My journey through the best presidential biographies has now consumed 780 days, the first 25 presidents, 107 biographies and almost 50,000 pages. During that time I’ve “witnessed” 6 wars, 3 presidential assassinations and countless presidential campaigns described as the “dirtiest ever.”
And just in time for Presidents’ Day I’ve made it to one of the most colorful, complex, fascinating and beloved of U.S. presidents: Theodore Roosevelt.
I’m reading ten stand-alone biographies and a three-volume series on Roosevelt – more than on any other president. I’m starting with the series which spans nearly 1,900 pages. Then I’ll work my way through the single-volume biographies chronologically, from oldest to newest:
* Edmund Morris’s widely acclaimed three-volume series seems the perfect place to begin. Published between 1979 and 2010, this biographical masterpiece includes “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” “Theodore Rex” and “Colonel Roosevelt.” The first volume won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for biography and the entire series remains extraordinarily popular.
* Next I’ll read “Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography.” This Pulitzer Prize winner was written by Henry Pringle and is the oldest of my biographies of “TR.” This was considered the definitive biography of TR when it was first published in 1931, just twelve years after Roosevelt’s death.
* John Blum’s “The Republican Roosevelt” is next. Published in 1954, this brief (161 page) book reportedly offers an early but masterful analysis of Roosevelt “the person” as well as “the politician.”
* Though infrequently read anymore, William Harbaugh’s 1961 “Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt” is viewed by some scholars as the best single-volume biography of TR. I’ll let you know what I think in about five weeks.
* David McCullough’s 1981 “Mornings on Horseback” is next. Some believe this is the authoritative biography of the young Teddy Roosevelt. McCullough’s later-published book on John Adams stands among my favorite five or six presidential biographies, so I’m anxious to see if his review of the early TR shines – or disappoints.
* Next I’m reading Nathan Miller’s 1992 “Theodore Roosevelt: A Life.” Highly recommended by a regular reader of this site, this was apparently the first comprehensive biography of TR in over three decades when it was published. It should be interesting to see how history’s perspective of Roosevelt evolved over those 30+ years.
* “TR: The Last Romantic” is H.W. Brands’s 1997 biography of Roosevelt. Still reasonably popular and and well-reviewed, this will be the third biography by Brands that I have read so far (the first two covered Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant; they were solid but not exceptional).
* Another recommendation by a frequent visitor to this site is Kathleen Dalton’s 2002 “Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life.” This book seems to provide a reassessment of Roosevelt’s character, dispensing with all forms of hero-worship and replacing the familiar caricature of TR with a more human – and more fallible – edifice.
* An immensely popular narrative portrait of Roosevelt is provided by Candice Millard’s 2005 “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” which is focused on TR’s harrowing late-life expedition through the Brazilian wilderness. Having already read Millard’s “Destiny of the Republic” which covered the assassination of President Garfield I think I have a sense for the excitement that lies ahead.
* Next-to-last I’ll be reading “Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition” by Jean Yarbrough. Published in 2012, it apparently contains nearly equal parts of biography, political analysis and intellectual history. It promises to more fully explore Roosevelt’s political philosophies and evolution than anything else I’ve read.
* My travels through TR’s best biographies concludes with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2013 “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.” It has been described as three-bios-in-one: of Roosevelt, Taft and the muckraker journalists of the era. While often praised for its unique perspective on the period, this book is also criticized for failing to bring the three perspectives together into a single, cohesive thread. But, if nothing else, it seems to provide a natural segue between the best biographies of TR and those of his successor, William Taft, who I’ll be moving on to next.
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Teddy Roosevelt’s biographies should keep me fully occupied until sometime around Memorial Day (2015). I’m already a few hundred pages into the first biography and I have a strong suspicion it’s going to be an interesting three months!