American history, biographies, book reviews, Nathan Miller, presidential biographies, Presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt
“Theodore Roosevelt: A Life” by Nathan Miller (published in 1992) was the first comprehensive, single-volume biography of Roosevelt in over three decades. Miller was the author of more than a dozen books including “FDR: An Intimate History” and was a four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee. Miller died in 2004 at the age of 77.
While Miller’s biography is solid in nearly every respect, it is exceptional in almost none. In a field crowded with good TR biographies, this book’s raison d’etre seems to be a cache of previously unpublished correspondence between Roosevelt and his first wife. While these letters provide a few new interesting insights, little else in the biography stands out as unique or particularly noteworthy.
To its credit, this biography provides a more efficient reading experience than its 567 pages might suggest. The author’s writing style is straightforward and normally easy to follow, and he uses none of the excessively erudite language that can burden an otherwise excellent presidential biography.
Unfortunately, Miller’s book is far less an insightful day-to-day narrative and more a matter-of-fact summary of Roosevelt’s life. It seems content to convey facts without also providing meaningful historical interpretation or analysis. And it occasionally feels less like a presidential biography than a political science book.
Readers will find this biography comprehensive, if too brief on many topics. And it provides a good balance between Roosevelt’s personal and public lives. But while the book is often interesting, it is far less engaging than many other biographies of Roosevelt. The chapters describing TR’s journeys in the Dakota Badlands, Africa and Brazil, for example, may inspire readers new to Roosevelt but will seem lifeless and bland to most others.
In addition, the reader never gets inside Roosevelt’s mind or really learns what makes him tick. Where some biographers transport the reader to the subject’s own world – often allowing them to witness the subject’s innermost thoughts – Miller’s examination of Roosevelt feels comparatively remote and sterile. Never does the reader develop a meaningful familiarity with TR or view history through his eyes.
And as solid as the biography appears at first glance, at its core it is missing a sense of vitality. It is somewhat like an otherwise good movie that seems to be missing something…and then it becomes obvious there is no soundtrack. The basics are in place, but a vital component, responsible for creating context and engaging the audience, is missing.
Overall, Nathan Miller biography provides a crisp, clear and straightforward review of Teddy Roosevelt’s life. It is unpretentious, comprehensive and eminently readable, but falls short in several minor ways. Perhaps most strikingly, it feels distant, antiseptic and lifeless. Miller’s biography is more than adequate as an efficient and reasonably thorough introduction to Roosevelt. But by no means is it the best choice for either new or experienced fans of Theodore Roosevelt.
Overall rating: 3½ stars
Reblogged this on History Book Reviews.
Christopher Saunders said:
Reading this one now. Miller is clearly interested in doing a relatively brisk narrative biography of TR and it works on that level. He’s not as good dealing with the fine grain detail of politics or social context, and he’s not interested in dwelling on the picturesque like Morris.