Monday, July 01, 2013

Mornings on Horseback: a Review

Mornings on Horseback
A Biography
David McCullough
Simon and Schuster:  445 pp., $16, paperback

We know not the rich or famous
But if we did, they’d blame us
For their failings and their downs
And credit selves for all their crowns
Though we may never prove it’s true
Their circles don’t include our friends
Or those within our working crew
We are not of means, but ends
While they must find some work to do

This biography of Theodore Roosevelt is not a garden-variety glorification of a famous man, but the detailed insight of a family destined for greatness in the face of extremes.  The extremes include wealth and power, but also extreme of insulation from deprivation and carefully choreographed social contact with only the top rung of the social ladder.

Much of the book is drawn from the literally thousands of letters written to and by the Roosevelts and the detail is both exquisite and, at times, excruciating.  McCullough has painstakingly researched the background of Teddy Roosevelt and has spent much of the book uncovering the fascinating roots of his father, also Teddy Roosevelt.  McCullough has not taken the path of other biographers of Roosevelt, but instead carved this full-bodied description from wood of his own choosing.  His choices include the strengths and weaknesses of reality and the resulting sculpture is a worthy piece.

Some of the early days of the Teddy we thought we knew are wrapped tightly in the body of his family and especially his father who, although already wealthy through family, gains more through his knowledge of the upper social class in 19th Century America.  Teddy Senior had manifold resources of money and position and he used it to protect and educate his family and not merely his children.  He was wealthy enough to buy his way out of the Civil War as many of his station did and yet writes of wishing he had served.  That may remind you of a recent candidate for president who spoke wistfully for his support of the Vietnam War while he got three deferments to avoid it.  Like Governor Romney, Roosevelt was kept apart from those who served, but hired them and fired them.  The public school system was not for people of his stature; not even private schools would do, but Roosevelt hired tutors who educated and traveled with the family.  In fact, the social fiber of his life was so strong that he was able to travel in Europe for a year meeting up from time to time with his peers and their families.  He even had a winter on the Nile and chartered a ship for his entourage while underwriting the ships of eight of his peers and their families and their many servants and staff so they could meet socially from time to time on the river.  McCullough describes a chilling scene in Italy where the senior Theodore Roosevelt happens upon a group of starving women and children.  The Roosevelts purchase cake and break it into crumbs to feed to the hapless Italians and absolutely chortle and delight in watching them grovel on their hands and knees feeding on the cake “like chickens.”  It is a stark reminder that having wealth and social position is no guarantee of grace or humanity.

There are still other episodes that demonstrate that even in the late 19th Century, that wealth was no guarantee of health.  The elder Theodore died painfully with stomach cancer and was given ether to reduce the pain.  His wife Mittie (the younger Theodore’s mother) died from typhoid fever due to poor hygiene whether from their own practices or their cooks is unknown.  Within eleven hours, Alice, young Theodore’s wife died of Bright’s disease after he rushed back from his political position in Albany. Bright’s disease was a general term for kidney failure at the time.  Through most of the youth of the younger Teddy, he suffered from asthma and was given special attention so that the family might get through the many episodes.  David McCullough did the research to determine that virtually all his attacks began on Friday nights thus supporting the thesis that young Roosevelt was psychosomatic and yet the family and especially his father cared for him for hours on end and self prescribed “cures” such as cigars to ease the attacks.  The family also endured countless outdoor challenges to get the young Theodore to fresh air.

Having lost his wife and mother, the younger Teddy was drawn more fully into his political work.  He depended increasingly on his sister Anna, “Bamie” within the family.  His only child was raised by Anna.  In his early days, even in the New York legislature, Teddy was seen as a dandy who dressed impeccably, but had a weak voice, a prissy appearance and was ineffective in dealing with ordinary people.  A few, however, noted his ability to analyze and to present cogent arguments despite his appearance.  They saw him build into a leader that others did not see at the time.

It is unclear that his self analysis or perhaps simply a feeling that he needed to become more physically capable led to his intense training and travel to the Badlands of the Dakotas, but this where we first see the Teddy that became famous for his physical exploits and toughness.  All this was despite his “dude” fashion.  He gained weight in muscle and gained physical endurance.  In essence, he became what he first attempted to portray in posed photographs.  He invested in cattle and became a “ranchman” rather than a cowboy and yet he worked as hard and long as any of the help.  There is an interesting tidbit from his days in the field when one of his hired hands offered Teddy a stray calf he had roped.  Roosevelt fired him on the spot saying that anybody that would steal for him would soon steal from him.  Overall, he lost money on cattle, but learned and grew tremendously in a period of about three years.  He also reprimanded and nearly fired a cowboy who had the temerity to call him “Theodore.”  Social position outranked money in the eyes of Roosevelt.  While in the Dakota Badlands, he became a social and business associate of Marquis de Mores of France who also invested in the cattle business and built a slaughterhouse in the Badlands to change the practice of shipping cattle to Chicago for slaughter.  Social standing seemed to outweigh all other factors in business as well as social decisions.  In that regard, the elder and younger Theodore were alike.  Even his associations while at Harvard were not with the wealthy, but only the well positioned wealthy of the lot.

McCullough spends little ink on what other authors dwell upon in Roosevelt’s prime national political life.  That is available nearly everywhere, but if you want a detailed view of how the phenomenon of Teddy Roosevelt was formed and matured, you will find this a valuable study of the times and persons that surrounded Teddy Roosevelt.  If you want to know more intimate details of his family life, his upbringing and social status, then this book is essential.


George Giacoppe
30 June 2013

No comments: