One of the most recent comprehensive, single-volume biographies of TR is Kathleen Dalton’s 2002 “Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life.” Dalton is a history instructor at Phillips Academy at Andover and focuses on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. She is currently working on “The White Lilies and the Iron Boot” about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.
Unlike most TR biographies, Dalton’s book neither embraces the notion of Roosevelt as a larger-than-life hero nor endlessly castigates him for his many faults. And in the book’s Introduction Dalton makes it clear she intends to avoid placing her subject on the pedestal built up by earlier historians (with the assistance of Roosevelt’s autobiographical exaggerations) in an effort to find the “real TR.”
But in the process of eschewing the trend toward hero-worship, Dalton leaves nearly every dramatic, colorful story of Roosevelt on the cutting room floor. TR’s life, of course, was one of extremes. And without these anecdotes her biography ultimately proves bland and unsatisfying – particularly surprising given how exuberant and spirited her subject was.
Dalton also fails to exhibit a flair for storytelling. Her biographical approach involves seemingly exhaustive research combined with an austere writing style. Historians may appreciate the lack of gratuitous drama but most fans of presidential biographies will miss the imagery which places them in the thick of the action. In addition, many significant scene- and character-establishing details are missing or rushed past.
TR’s failed attempt to become speaker of the New York State Assembly (an early setback which taught him much about politics) is barely mentioned, almost no introduction is provided to America’s military conflict with Spain in 1898 and the Rough Rider’s life-defining (if foolish) actions at San Juan and Kettle hills are almost entirely ignored. In addition, Roosevelt’s complex attitude toward the vice presidency and the political drama surrounding his selection as McKinley’s running mate are almost entirely unexamined.
Individually, any of these events can be overlooked without losing full sight of Roosevelt. But so many are missing or rushed past that the resulting portrait of Roosevelt is undeservedly gray and lifeless. Ironically, despite Dalton’s efficiency in coverage TR’s life the book still weighs in at 524 pages; by the end, one wonders what could have consumed that much space.
“A Strenuous Life” does have much to offer, however. Dalton does an admirable job examining TR’s family relationships during his childhood, she provides a fascinating character analysis of his oldest daughter and her review of Roosevelt’s post-presidential journey along the River of Doubt is engrossing. But of particular merit is a unique chapter (Saving “Our Own National Soul”) analyzing Roosevelt’s ethical and moral vision for the country.
Overall, Kathleen Dalton’s “Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life” provides an occasionally interesting and often incredibly balanced perspective of our twenty-sixth president. But while the text is infused with observations of Roosevelt I have not seen elsewhere, far too much is left out of the discussion. And in an effort to reveal the real TR rather than the caricature, this biography fully reveals neither.
Overall rating: 3½ stars