American history, biographies, Candice Millard, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Edmund Morris, H.W. Brands, Henry Pringle, Jean Yarbrough, John Blum, Kathleen Dalton, Nathan Miller, Patricia O'Toole, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize, Theodore Roosevelt, William Harbaugh
After reading 121 biographies of the first 26 presidents, Theodore Roosevelt easily stands out as one of the most fascinating and robustly-spirited chief executives in our nation’s history.
He almost makes Andrew Jackson look tame.
Roosevelt was a prolific author, part-time science nerd, rancher, conservationist, legislator, reform-minded police commissioner and government bureaucrat, soldier, governor, naval enthusiast, thrill-seeking adventurer, Nobel Peace Prize winner…and the youngest president in American history.
Theodore Roosevelt is easy to caricature, but extremely difficult to study, unravel and adequately interpret. At once he could be both brilliant and insane, logical and yet completely delusional. He was remarkably self-confident, a quick study in the art of politics, a gifted communicator, extremely sociable and enormously devoted to his family and his country.
Unfortunately, his incredible life story has a less-than-perfect ending. After letting go the reins of political power and concluding that his successor wasn’t quite up to the task, Roosevelt worked himself into a perpetual state of agitation and, eventually, became almost unhinged.
Over 18 weeks I read 14 books on Roosevelt: Edmund Morris’s three-volume series and 11 one-volume biographies, totaling about 7,000 pages. Among other things, I walked away absolutely convinced it would be difficult to write an uninteresting book about Teddy Roosevelt.
* I began with Edmund Morris’s beloved three-volume series on Roosevelt. Published between 1979 and 2010, this series remains enormously popular – and for good reason.
The trilogy’s first volume “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” covers TR’s pre-presidency and is filled with adventure, discovery and political maturation (to the extent Roosevelt ever really “matured”). This volume won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for biography and fully captures TR’s spirit and soul spirit. It demonstrates the author’s affinity for Roosevelt, is a bit lengthy, and doesn’t exhibit the smoothest style…but it is hard to imagine a better introduction to this larger-than-life character. (Full review here)
The second volume, “Theodore Rex,” is more sober and serious and focused on Roosevelt’s presidency. Although less lively and exciting than the first volume, Morris’s writing style in this volume is more fluid and natural. I was surprised Morris didn’t have more to say about Roosevelt’s political legacy, but this volume is clearly intended more as a historical narrative than a political analysis. It performes its task admirably. (Full review here)
The final volume “Colonel Roosevelt” covers the last decade of Roosevelt’s life. This period offers an author a panoply of wonderful topics to cover: TR’s African safari, his journey through the Amazon forest, his third-party presidential campaign and his vitriolic attacks on Taft and Wilson. Morris proves up to the task, and this volume exhibits the vitality and engagement of the first volume along with the literary sophistication of the second volume. (Full review here)
* Next I read Henry Pringle’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography.” Published in 1931, this was long considered the definitive study of Roosevelt. I found this biography both frustrating and rewarding: it spends too much time knocking TR off his pedestal but is liberally infused with thought-provoking insights and observations. In the end, its non-linear journey through TR’s life, its over-weighted focus on TR’s political career and its distracting negativity wore me down. But it makes a very good “companion” book to a more modern, and balanced, biography. (Full review here)
* John Blum’s “The Republican Roosevelt” was my next biography. Published in 1954, this comparatively brief review of Roosevelt helped establish TR’s reputation as a president of consequence. Far less a biography than a 161-page analysis of TR’s moral and political core, readers new to Roosevelt will not find his complete portrait here. But anyone interested in this complex political figure will find this an intriguing study. (Full review here)
* William Harbaugh’s 1961 “Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt” is considered by many scholars the best single-volume biography of TR. I’m inclined to agree. Despite some shortcomings – the book focuses far more heavily on TR’s political career than on the numerous other fascinating events of his life – it is a careful, penetrating and thoughtful study of Roosevelt. Harbaugh is a careful observer and an excellent writer. But as good as this biography was, some readers may prefer to first digest a biography of TR that more fully captures his early years (and his family life) before moving on to this excellent book. (Full review here)
* David McCullough’s 1981 “Mornings on Horseback” is a colorful and engaging account of the first twenty-eight years of Teddy Roosevelt’s life and was the 1982 Pulitzer Prize finalist for biographies. This book provides a fascinating window into the young TR and should prove entertaining to even the most picky reader. While much of TR’s life is uncovered, the years of focus are explored with uneven intensity. And, regrettably, the book is not able to fully capture the soul of this future president. But while this may not be McCullough at his very best, “Mornings on Horseback” is endlessly colorful and entertaining, if not interpretive and revealing. (Full review here)
* Nathan Miller’s “Theodore Roosevelt: A Life” was the first comprehensive biography of TR in over three decades when it was published in 1992. It is well-balanced between Roosevelt’s personal and professional lives and provides a thorough introduction to nearly every aspect of TR’s life. But it lacks a sense of vitality and, compared to other TR biographies, feels somewhat lifeless and antiseptic. More a matter-of-fact review than a colorfully descriptive or keenly insightful review of his life, readers can do better elsewhere. (Full review here)
* “TR: The Last Romantic” is H.W. Brands’s 1997 comprehensive review of Roosevelt’s life. This biography is both detailed and exceptionally readable. Brands offers a sober, penetrating perspective on TR’s life and provides a far less complimentary view of Roosevelt than many other biographers. But the author’s theme of TR as a philosophical “romantic” eventually feels forced, and there is no escaping that the book’s first half is far better than its second half. (Full review here)
* Kathleen Dalton’s 2002 “Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life” was next. Unlike most biographies of TR, Dalton’s book is extremely balanced in its opinion of Roosevelt. But in order to avoid over-dramatizing TR’s most bombastic, dramatic and adventurous moments, she abbreviates or extricates too many of the most important events in his life. As a result, the book often feels austere and bland – and Roosevelt almost certainly would not recognize himself in these pages. In an effort to reveal the real TR and avoid the caricature, Dalton fully conveys neither. (Full review here)
*Next up was Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.” This enormously popular 2005 narrative follows Roosevelt on his post-presidential adventure through the Brazilian rainforest. Millard’s writing style is vivid and gripping and there appear to be no details of TR’s journey that were overlooked in her research. Although it is not a comprehensive biography of Theodore Roosevelt and only briefly reviews TR’s earlier life, it is a dramatic and compelling tale of adventure and perseverance. Anyone fascinated by TR, or just enchanted by a great story, will want to read this book. (Full review here)
* Jean Yarbrough’s 2012 “Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition” proves to be, at best, a semi-biography of Roosevelt. Although it proceeds chronologically through Roosevelt’s life, touching at least briefly on each event of significance, the emphasis is always on TR’s political philosophies. But while readers seeking a thorough introduction to Roosevelt will do better to look elsewhere, Yarbrough provides a great service to TR scholarship with this book and its analysis. (Full review here)
* I looked forward to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2013 “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism” above all other TR biographies. Often described as three biographies in one (of Roosevelt, Taft and the journalists of their era) “The Bully Pulpit” is heavier on facts than on colorful description or keen insight. But it proves very well-written, often extremely interesting, and quite clever in in the way it follows TR and Taft in parallel throughout their early lives.
Fans of Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” will recognize much of her style in this book. But although it offers a unique and compelling way to weave together the lives of TR and Taft, Goodwin probably tries to cover too much ground in one place…and I was eventually annoyed by its heavy use of embedded quotes and phrases. Nevertheless, this is a great book and a must-read for anyone interested in Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft or this period of American history. (Full review here)
*At the end of my TR journey I read Patricia O’Toole’s 2005 “When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House.” Published five years before the final volume of Morris’s three-volume series (and covering nearly the same ground), this biography is relatively lively and fast-paced. To her credit, O’Toole takes the time to expertly review the huge portion of TR’s life which falls outside the book’s primary scope. And while there seemed to be little new about TR in this biography, O’Toole tells a mostly-familiar story in a new and interesting way. If not for the final volume in Morris’s series, O’Toole’s “When Trumpets Call” would perform a unique and invaluable service. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Theodore Roosevelt: Edmund Morris’s three-volume series
Best Single-Volume Bio of TR: “Power and Responsibility” by William Harbaugh
Best “Unconventional” Bio of TR: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit”
Most Exciting Read about TR: Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt“