“T.R.: The Last Romantic” is H.W. Brands’s 1997 biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Brands is a professor at the University of Texas, a prolific author and a two-time Pulitzer finalist. He has written nearly thirty books on a wide range of historical topics including biographies of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Aaron Burr and FDR. His most recent biography “Reagan: A Life” will be released in May.
Brands’s biography is lengthy (with just over 800 pages) but also comprehensive, well-researched and detailed. His writing style, always straightforward and exceptionally readable, lacks the descriptive touches of many authors. As a result, this book does not engage the reader with spectacular scene-setting as do some biographies, and rarely presents the world as seen through Roosevelt’s eyes.
But Brands maintains a keen, insightful and penetrating frame of reference and provides a comparatively serious and sophisticated journey through Roosevelt’s life. Brands also does an admirable job providing historical context throughout the text. His colorful description of the grubby underside to life in New York City (which Roosevelt encountered as a young, enthusiastic police commissioner) is but one early example.
For such a comprehensive and thorough biography, however, there are surprisingly few threads tying together the various phases of Roosevelt’s life. Only the notion of Roosevelt as a “romantic” pervades the biography (in a philosophical, not amorous, sense). And although Brands works diligently to link Roosevelt with that theme, it is not overwhelmingly convincing or compelling.
Curiously, Brands chooses to underemphasize Roosevelt’s efforts in the area of wilderness preservation as well as his productive literary career. If I hadn’t already read several biographies of Roosevelt I would hardly appreciate what he accomplished with his authorship of The Naval War of 1812 (started when he was just a college student). On the other hand, topics on which Brands chooses to focus are usually well-executed such as his description of Roosevelt’s involvement in the Panama Canal project.
“The Last Romantic” is frequently criticized for being unfairly critical of Roosevelt – a charge that seems heavy-handed in the book’s early chapters. Brands is certainly not as breathless in his praise of the young Roosevelt as are most biographers, but at worst his coverage seems ruthlessly objective. As the book wears on, however, Brands’s tone becomes increasingly tepid and his observations more consistently disparaging.
Once Roosevelt becomes president he seems unable to do anything to merit the author’s praise; the benefit of the doubt never accrues to this Rough Rider. And while Brands undoubtedly performs a public service in showing both sides of Roosevelt’s coin, the sense of imbalance becomes distracting. The criticism is rarely obtuse or heavy-handed, but if it is somewhat subtle it is also unrelenting.
Fortunately, the final chapter serves as a useful and perceptive review of Roosevelt’s character and legacy. But by now the biography’s momentum and enthusiasm have been dissipated. Judged as two separate books, the first half would score among the best presidential biographies I’ve read. As for the second half…
Overall, H.W. Brands’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt is informative, detailed and thought-provoking. It seems to revere his early enthusiasm for justice and reform, but challenges the conventional wisdom placing TR among the greatest of America’s presidents. Brands’s biography of Teddy Roosevelt is interesting and often meritorious, but seems to go a step too far in tearing the man off his pedestal.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars