Edmund Morris might seem an unusual person to write a three-volume set on the rise, the presidency, and the post-presidential life of an American possessing a reputation for the love of red meat, fistfights and guns, as well as a stated need for glory in war.
Morris was born in Nairobi, Kenya. He studied music, art and literature at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. He dropped out of college in 1961 to work in the retail advertising department of a menswear store. In 1964 Morris abandoned his dreams of becoming a concert pianist and moved to Britain to work as a copywriter in an advertising agency. In 1966 he emigrated to the United States.
After arriving in America he researched and wrote his first book on Theodore Roosevelt, publishing it in 1979. The book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for biography.
Maybe only such an unusual man as Morris could gain a sufficient understanding of “TR” to present him in more than caricature form. It is through Morris’ books that we the readers gain a sense of who Teddy really was and what he actually accomplished in his life. And through Morris’ gifted writing and detailed research I believe a reader can also gain an understanding of how America has changed since Teddy Roosevelt rose to prominence, governed in the White House, and toured the world as an ex-president who then chose to be called simply Colonel Roosevelt. And just maybe, Morris’ books also betray a hidden sadness for what America has lost in the 111 years since TR took the oath of office as president of the United States.
In all three books we stand behind the family members, ranchers, ruffians, soldiers, sailors, mechanics, congressmen, senators, governors, presidents, kings, prime ministers, princes, and chancellors who TR met in his lifetime. And we can also stand behind the people TR met in order to look deeply into the eyes of the man who would become and then was the most respected and admired American on the face of the earth. We gain a sense of TR’s intellect as we witness how he became the first American to win a Nobel Prize in any category (TR won a Nobel Peace Prize while he was president for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War).
Through Morris we see that this red-meat-eating fist fighter also fought for women’s rights, safe food for Americans, and labor laws initiating workmen’s compensation and ending child labor. And we see the man who advocated for civil rights and the vote for women long before it was popular with anyone besides a few outspoken people who were viewed as eccentrics.
Morris captures in print the complexities of Teddy Roosevelt’s world. And with this understanding, I believe it also possible to better understand the complexities of our present world.
Morris’ books are scholarly almost to a fault. Most readers will need to keep a dictionary by their elbow while reading them. But even that takes us back to a time when authors chose to use words much as a great artist chooses to use paint brushes of all sizes and shapes and a palette filled with all shades of colors.
These books are a project. But winter is still upon us and these books are so much better than the last of the reruns and the first of the new season that does and will assault the TVs of America.
Rated: Mild; no vulgarity, but a few themes appropriate for older readers: the books in the series record how the Roosevelts dealt with death, the unfaithfulness of a child’s spouse and political intrigue, and participated in the hunting and killing of animals, battle scenes, etc.