“The Republican Roosevelt” is John Blum’s 1954 analysis of Theodore Roosevelt which was largely responsible for establishing TR’s reputation as a serious and consequential president. Blum was a historian focused on 20th-century politics, a professor at Yale for thirty-four years and the author of numerous books. He died in 2011 at the age of ninety.
Although often described as an early biography of Roosevelt, there is very little in Blum’s work that falls within that genre. Only in the vaguest sense does it attempt to chronologically, or comprehensively, cover TR’s life. Instead, it is an extremely skillful and often fascinating analysis of Roosevelt and his motivations.
In fact, Blum’s work is far more a series of essays on various aspects of Roosevelt’s moral and political philosophies than anything else. Occasionally it resembles a collection of lecture notes by a political scientist focused on Roosevelt’s career and times. But never will the reader mistake “The Republican Roosevelt” for a cradle-to-grave survey of Roosevelt’s life.
Blum’s investigation gets off to a fast start – the first chapter appears to be a rapid-fire brainstorm of important and revealing observations about Roosevelt and his virtues. There was so much content in the first two-dozen pages that I seriously considered pausing for a day or two, if only to reflect on what I had learned.
In some ways, Blum’s early tone seems a response to Henry Pringle’s 1931 biography criticizing Roosevelt as a blustering politician who never completely outgrew his childhood. But if this is not really a biography of Roosevelt, neither is it a hagiography filled with incessant and exaggerated praise. Blum often criticizes Roosevelt for misdirecting his energy to issues of no lasting significance and for focusing on matters which obstructed his reform-oriented agenda.
In contrast to many biographers, Blum is not a natural writer; his style is neither elegant nor smooth. Instead, his sentences are often awkward and clunky and force the reader to sip rather than drink freely. But nearly every paragraph of this 161-page book is full of prescient observations and witticisms. And if a few sentences are boring, virtually none seems unimportant or inconsequential.
Readers new to this president will often find that Blum assumes too much previous knowledge of Roosevelt and the politics of his era. But in no way is Blum’s study intended as an introduction to Roosevelt – it is best enjoyed as a second, or third, book on this president. Only then can its wisdom be fully revealed and appreciated.
Overall, John Blum’s “The Republican Roosevelt” proves inadequate as a biography but exemplary as an interpretation of this extraordinary and complicated man. Readers seeking an introduction to Roosevelt will hardly find him here. What is revealed in these pages is the software coded into his brain rather than scenic images from his journey through life. While incapable of serving as an effective introduction to Roosevelt, Blum’s book is a surprisingly cogent distillation of what made TR tick.
Overall rating: “Unrated” as a biography