“Mornings on Horseback” is David McCullough’s 1981 biography covering Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood and was the 1982 Pulitzer finalist in the biography category. McCullough is a well-regarded author and historian best known for his biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman. His latest book “The Wright Brothers” will be published this May.
Covering the first twenty-eight years of Roosevelt’s life, McCullough’s narrative provides a fascinating perspective on Theodore’s childhood and early adulthood. But it also reveals far more than that – it offers a unique and engaging look at the life of a privileged New York family during the late nineteenth century.
As a consequence of McCullough’s focus, the reader misses the majority of Theodore’s political career (and the accompanying theatrics) including his time as Civil Service Commissioner, NYC Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy…and his presidency. But the lives of his parents and siblings (and his relationships with each) are captured brilliantly and provide valuable historical insight.
“Mornings on Horseback” is also well researched and often extremely detailed. And while not quite McCullough at his very best (his two Pulitzer prizes came about a decade later) it proves a wonderfully-told and endlessly entertaining story. One of the most familiar and celebrated features of his more recent narratives is on full display – his masterful ability to describe a scene in a way that dazzles and captivates the reader.
Particularly interesting chapters include those on his father’s nomination by President Hayes to be Collector of the Port of New York and TR’s adventures in the Dakota Badlands following the unexpected death of his first wife. And while the topic did not quite fill an entire chapter, you might not get as complete or rewarding a history of the earliest days of Harvard University if you were skip the book and take the campus tour.
But McCullough’s approach possesses several shortcomings. Most importantly for the ardent Teddy Roosevelt fan, the book never fully penetrates his mind or his soul. Although his actions are well-described and his family life revealed in colorful detail, the reader never gets really gets to know the future president or understand how his childhood experiences shaped his later career.
And although McCullough consistently demonstrates his prowess at scene-setting, he often fails to inform the reader why a particular setting is important to the story. Because so many of the book’s transitions from one scene to another are anything but seamless, the reader is often left to digest two or three pages before understanding the significance of a new topic to the storyline.
Also, McCullough’s attention and focus proves surprisingly uneven. Important topics sometimes secure an entire chapter (a detailed discussion of asthma, for example) while in other instances they hardly earn more than a page or two. Roosevelt’s campaign for mayor of New York City and the circumstances surrounding his second marriage, combined, were worth just over four pages.
The two most frequent complaints about McCullough’s book, however, are that it ends too soon…and ends too abruptly. The first grievance, of course, is really a compliment. But the second complaint has far deeper roots. Other than a helpful “Afterward” which in brief form follows Roosevelt and his siblings to the end of their lives, the book ends suddenly and without warning.
Overall, David McCullough’s “Mornings on Horseback” is entertaining and offers a unique perspective on Roosevelt’s early life. But it proves far more descriptive than interpretive. Readers seeking to understand TR thoroughly will come away disappointed, and Edmund Morris’s “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” may prove more rewarding. But for those hoping to view the young Theodore Roosevelt through the lens of his family’s daily life, there can be no better choice.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars