“Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography” is Henry Pringle’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of the twenty-sixth president. Published in 1931, just twelve years after Roosevelt’s death, it was considered the definitive biography of Roosevelt for many years. Pringle was a journalist and biographer, and also authored a two-volume biography of William Howard Taft in 1939.
One thing is immediately obvious when reading this biography: the author is not one of Teddy Roosevelt’s most adoring fans. Rather than providing a fawning or worshipful review of Roosevelt’s life, this book sets an early tone that ranges between skeptical and critical.
Far from embracing Roosevelt’s large reputation, Pringle knocks TR off his pedestal, reminding the reader that every silver lining belongs to a cloud. Where his contemporaries remember a decisive leader, Pringle sees snap decisions; where history savors the Panama Canal, historic wilderness conservation and an early move against monopolies, Pringle focuses on his concomitant weaknesses.
One begins to wonder if this could possibly be the same Theodore Roosevelt who historians rank so highly in the Presidential Pantheon. But by the book’s second half the criticism becomes more more balanced and the bias less severe. Pringle never buys into the popular view of TR’s greatness, but his disapproval becomes less strident and far more thought-provoking.
Despite its age – the book is nearly eighty-five years old – its writing style is not stiff and it reads like a much younger book. Though occasionally dense, it is rarely dull and is liberally infused with insightful observations.
But much is missing from Pringle’s work. Despite the fact it is ostensibly comprehensive, there is almost no discussion of Roosevelt’s family. Here, Pringle ignores a critical dimension of TR’s life. The author also rushes past much else: his time in the Dakotas, his early career in Washington and New York City, his “Rough Rider” campaign and his trips to Africa and South America.
While avoiding the look and feel of a political science textbook, this biography is clearly more focused on Roosevelt’s national political career rather on than anything else.
Pringle also tends to proceed through Roosevelt’s life non-linearly; it is often difficult to place described events in their proper sequence. While the overarching thread is chronological, the book frequently dashes forward or backward in time to capture a moment, or describe a theme, not previously discussed. Many readers will find the book’s flow disjointed.
There is, however, much to like about this early biography of Roosevelt. Rather than falling into the easy trap of incessantly praising Roosevelt, Pringle forces the reader to consider whether TR’s greatest strengths were also his most glaring weaknesses.
And where some biographers may add texture to their narrative by leaning on Roosevelt’s interesting but almost frivolous adventures, Pringle focuses only on the most essential moments of his subject’s life. In the end, there are simply too many nuggets of wisdom in this biography to simply dismiss it.
Overall, Henry Pringle’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt is both insightful and frustrating. It fails to adequately cover much of TR’s life that is essential to understanding him, but some of its criticism is reasonable and well-founded. In the end, this book is most valuable as a companion text to a more comprehensive and penetrating biography of Roosevelt.
Overall rating: 3 stars