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)
– – – – – – – – – – –
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“
Scott La Mar said:
I want to think you for your in depth study of Theodore Roosevelt, I unfortunately have only read the one volume on TR, Theodore Roosevelt A Life by Nathan Miller and enjoyed it. I have The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin which I have not began to read as of yet. I will take your suggestion in the future as I further my studies the Presidents.
Scott La Mar
Good luck on your next biography! I think you’ll enjoy The Bully Pulpit. It is not only an interesting bio of TR, but also of Taft…so you get two-for-the-price-of-one. While far from perfect, it held my attention quite well!
Great summary Steve! I think I will pick up the O’Toole book on your recommendation. I’m sure this seems odd, but I actually, for some reason, have a keen interest in what the Presidents have done AFTER their time in office.
Have you read Douglas Brinkley’s “The Wilderness Warrior”? It looks very interesting.
I have not. Looks interesting, although it obviously doesn’t qualify strictly as a “biography.” But I’ll have to find time at some point to read this behemoth..!
Murray Relkin said:
Would like to know if anyone read THE RISE OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT by Edmund Morris what they thought of this book.
Gavin Delany said:
Super helpful and thorough assessment. Thanks! Hadn’t heard of Harbaugh. Wish it was available on Audible. I mostly only listen to books now. I suppose I’ll start with Morris though the 3 volumes is a bit of a commitment. I’m in the middle of Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and its good, but a bit slow for me.
Oddly enough – especially given how much time I spent in the car where I can’t “read” – I haven’t gotten into Audible. In part this is natural since I still take notes on a laptop when I come across a particularly clever one-liner or an interesting new fact. But it really boils down to my need to have a physical book and to be able to read at my own pace. Separately, I didn’t find Team of Rivals slow at all, but I might have if forced to listen at someone else’s pace for reading it aloud?
No fans of “I Rose Like a Rocket”? Grondahl vividly shows how rough Albany politics sharpened TR’s political edge.
Fascinating – one I haven’t encountered before! I was such a fan of TR biographies I may have to add this one to my follow-up list sight unseen!
Very helpful article. Thanks! I didn’t really reach a conclusion on which one I should read though. I’ve never read any political biographies, so I want something relatively small in size and somewhat “easy” to read and comprehend. It seems to me that moriss’ trilogy is the fullest (and propably most exciting) choice, but its length is scary to me. Mornings on horseback seems a decent alternative the way you describe it (I would like a rather adventurous version for now). What about his autobiography. I thought one existed. Was I wrong?
I understand your dilemma! Morris’s series is best, but longest. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit” is fantastic, but admittedly not 100% focused on TR. Brands’s “TR: The Last Romantic” is a fine 100%-focused, single-volume bio but was just “fine” and not “great” for me. “Mornings on Horseback” checks off the “adventurous” box but only covers the early portion of his life…
You are absolutely correct that TR wrote an autobiography (which can be found here). It is, by most accounts, typical Teddy Roosevelt – stream-of-consciousness, often fascinating, etc. I have not read it since I have my hands full just reading biographies, never mind autobiographies and memoirs! But I do plan to go back and read those later, particularly those of Eisenhower, Truman, Coolidge, TR,…
Good luck choosing a TR book to read – you will be absolutely fascinated by his life no matter what you read-
Leif Penrose said:
Your evaluations of the various biographies was super helpful and exactly what I was looking for. Thank you!
Fantastic, thanks! If you read one on TR let me know which one you chose and how you liked it-
Al Colburn said:
So I’m making my way through the presidents and am just about up to TR. I am jumping ahead a little order-wise to read Mornings on Horseback “early.” I love McCullough’s books and maybe it will help me learn about the times when his immediate predecessors were in the executive mansion.
Anyway, thinking about a womb to tomb biography to read I am stuck by a certain irony. TR is fascinating, and has attracted some of the most talented writers around, yet—to be honest—your reviews leave me thinking none of them stand out as being great. They’re all OK, but they also seem to all have some pretty big flaws.
Do you think I am being unfair?
By the time I got to TR I had read just over 100 presidential biographies, so my expectations for the perfect one were pretty well-defined at that point. It’s fair to say I didn’t find any TR biographies “perfect” (according to my subjective definition) but given how my scoring has worked itself out, anything “4” stars or higher is excellent – and there TR biographies I thought were excellent.
It’s also worth pointing out that something like “Mornings on Horseback” can make for a fantastic read but not quite provide the historical or analytical impact that a perfect presidential biography provides for me. So although I rated it 3 3/4 stars, I really really enjoyed it and would gladly read it again – but for me it erred slightly on the side of entertaining rather than penetrating.
In general, TR was a phenomenally interesting biographical subject so almost anything covering some aspect of his life is bound to be interesting 🙂
The Edmund Morris series is fantastic. I’m about halfway through Theodore Rex after devouring The Rise of TR and they’ve both been excellent reads. I agree with Steve above that The Rise is the more entertaining book, simply because of the incredible, eclectic life TR lived before becoming president.
Additionally, I did not plan on reading the full three volumes (I actually bought the first book on amazon thinking it was a single volume biography, whoops!) but after finishing the The Rise, I felt compelled to see TRs life through. I’d recommend reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and if you like it, finish books 2 and 3. Book 1 is one helluva yarn all on its own.
One more thing. I got into Roosevelt because of Millard’s The River of Doubt. I agree with Steve that the River of Doubt is also a fascinating story. I couldn’t put that book down. Of course, this book only covers a thin slice of TRs life, but it certainly inspired me to find out more!
is Morris three volumes easy reading or is hard and dry reading?
I just finished Morris’s trilogy. I think overall they were excellent books, with a good balance of fact/historical context/entertainment that makes them worth the time investment.
The other thing I noticed is a consistency of quality from start to finish. Sometimes authors grow weary of the subject, and later books don’t have the same impact as the earlier books. I think Morris did an outstanding job keeping this trilogy consistent in tone, coverage, and writing style.
I would definitely recommend them, I think they are ‘easy’ reads, but not short books, so while the reading is easy, it will take some time to finish the series. Also, I wouldn’t stop at the end of his presidency. Unlike most other presidents I’ve read about so far, TR warrants entire books devoted to his post-presidency. The man never slowed down, and he left office quite young.
Thank you for your reviews! Years ago I set myself a goal of at least one biography for each president and I’m just getting to Roosevelt. Again. Because I’ve already done “Mornings On Horseback” and “River Of Doubt” years ago before I started this. You’ve provided me with ideas for a volume to capture Teddy and the eras around him and to overlap those who went before as I move through history.
I *really* enjoyed Teddy Roosevelt! And given the recent “resurgence” of Grant biographies I wonder why there aren’t more authors focusing on the inimitable TR. Let me know what you finally read on him and what you thought of it-
Thank you for the great in-depth post! I was recently assigned to TR’s namesake ship and am looking for relevant reading material. I really appreciate your well written reviews!
I hope you love the USS Theodore Roosevelt as much as I loved reading about his life! That was one unbelievably fascinating guy-
I am reading through Presidents and about to start on McKinley. While in the Buffalo area recently, we visited the Theodore Roosevelt inauguration site. https://www.trsite.org/ Nice tour- gives some info on McKinley as well as Theodore Roosevelt. We found it interesting and we are trying to visit otherPresidential sites as we travel around the country.
Thanks for the tip on TR’s inauguration site! I will be in Buffalo in a couple weeks for a swim meet and may have a some free time on my hands – and it’s always good to know how I might put it to good use!
If you like barbeque, we ate at a restaurant close to the TR site called “Fat Bob’s” which was very good.
Adam Zanzie said:
David McCullough writes in “Mornings on Horseback” about how an asthmatic young Teedie used to be terrified by visions of a werewolf “coming at him from the bottom of his bed”. I have been obsessed with this image ever since first hearing Jason Robards narrate about it in the American Experience documentary “TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt” (in which McCullough was one of the interviewees).
Would you, by any chance, know the source of where the story about TR’s werewolf nightmares first originated? I find no mention of it in Roosevelt’s autobiography, nor in the biographies written prior to McCullough’s.
The idea of this boy having delusions about werewolves seems so eerily befitting a president who would grow up to have such a profound connection to nature. I just want to make sure that it’s true, and not the invention of his biographers.
Paul R said:
Have just finished Edmund Morris’s ‘The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. My mark is only 2/5.
The author always uses 3 words where one would do and spends much time painting ‘imagined’ (but dull and irrelevant) scenes to the narrative. So it’s a clunky slow biography.
According to Morris, people encountering young Roosevelt foretold his great destiny: but it’s unclear if the expectations were contemporary or gathered later. And Morris writes as cheerleader for the Great Man – a distinctly partisan account.
Morris is not so blind as to ignore the heritage that Roosevelt was privileged and ill disciplined throughout his early life. Where Roosevelt claimed principles, he quickly discarded them when they were inconvenient. But Morris is exhaustive in providing explanations and justifications for the switches and is always unsympathetic to critics for example when Cleveland, as Governor of New York, vetoes Roosevelt’s Civil Service Law because the legislation is technically defective.
Roosevelt ended with a small fortune – having started with a large one. It would be good to hear more about the financial pressures and the influence (if any) but the topic is not developed.
If Roosevelt had a truly enduring principle, it was to be the showman ensuring, always, that the press was there to watch: Morris appears to envy the attention Roosevelt generated and so describes his publicity campaigns in unnecessary detail.
Roosevelt was not untypical of hyperactive privileged sons of the late nineteenth century in seeking empire (think of Rhodes) but Morris does not mention the zeitgeist of colonialism in the era. Indeed Morris ignores the similarities between Roosevelt’s initiatives and similar efforts in many Western countries: such comparisons would have been illuminating but, presumably, do not fit with the preferred Morris line that Roosevelt was a one-off.
It’s a pity; he is celebrated for taking forward, especially as President, those very issues – promoting workers’ welfare, protection of the environment, and fairness for individual citizens: it would have been interesting to hear more about the international input to a man who saw himself as a citizen of the world.
So a disappointing book and a tedious read.