• U.S.

Books: Foolish Grit

4 minute read
Melvin Maddocks


Simon & Schuster; 445 pages; $17.95

The family surrounding the childhood of Theodore Roosevelt seemed emblematic of all that was best in America:

energy, innocence, gilded charm.

First there was father, Theodore Sr.

From 6 in the morning until midnight, he attended to the family businesses —plate glass, real estate, banking. Simultaneously, he threw himself into philanthropy, rehabilitating New York’s urchins with what his friend John Hay, later Secretary of State, described as “maniacal benevolence.”

Floating like a swan in the wake of Theodore Sr. was his adoring wife Martha, a Southern belle who conveyed into middle age the voice of flute song, the fragrance of blue violets. Besides Teddy, known as “Teedie,” there were three other children, all equipped with their own preppie nicknames: Anna, known as “Bamie,” Elliott, known as “Ellie,” and Corinne, known as “Conie.”

Whether bursting the seams of a five-story New York City brownstone and a summer home at Oyster Bay, or sailing up the Nile in the winter of 1872-73, the Roosevelts appeared to be living one inspired moment after another. A friend observed that they constituted “a family so rarely gifted as to seem … touched by the flame of the ‘divine fire.’ ” But, as David McCullough’s family portrait reveals, tragic cracks flawed all the Roosevelts, particularly the man who was, as if by mutual choice, the family’s crown prince.

Teddy Roosevelt has become a kind of national myth, a Charles Atlas of the body and soul who proved the American credo: a man can make himself anything he wants to be. But McCullough argues that Teddy’s childhood asthma was at least partly the psychosomatic complaint of a boy suffocated by the burden of overachievement.

At the age of 13, while boasting a voice like an “ungreased squeak,” Teddy was given a large pair of spectacles and a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun. With his new glasses he discovered birds for the first time. With his new toy he shot them by the hundreds. This metaphor of myopic aggression dominates the book.

A superb historian, McCullough (The Path Between the Seas, The Johnstown Flood) has done his homework on everything affecting Teddy’s early life.

He expounds the latest theories on asthma; young Roosevelt’s matriculation at Harvard is the occasion for an evocative set piece on undergraduate life in the 1870s; after the graduate becomes a New York assemblyman at the age of 23, McCullough weaves in a marvelous little essay on Tammany-style logrolling.

But Mornings on Horseback finally lacks the salient characteristic of the Roosevelts—enthusiasm. In spite of Teddy’s strenuous self-improvement and relentless selfdiscipline, McCullough finds something spoiled about the prig who talks of keeping himself “pure,” for some “rare and radiant maiden” and postures for the camera as “the plainsman” in custom-tailored buckskins with dagger and sheath from Tiffany. The author appears to prefer Black Sheep Elliott, who, lacking what he called his brother’s “foolish grit,” collapsed under the responsibility of being a Roosevelt, although surviving long enough to father Eleanor, the wife-to-be of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, before dying an alcoholic at 34.

The Roosevelts were a blessed and blighted family—an American tragedy as well as an American success story. One of them ought to have seen this, and that someone, McCullough implies, should have been Teddy. In the Badlands of Dakota, while recovering from the deaths (on the same day) of his mother and first wife Alice Lee, Teddy, at 25, wrote of “melancholy pathless plains” and “deathlike stillness”—the moral geography of Edgar Allan Poe. Here he came as close as he ever would to confessing to his demons.

But in the end, the Rough Rider, pronouncing life to be bully, went out on horseback in the morning, with his latest glasses and his latest shotgun, and fired away at everything living. McCullough scrupulously follows his subject. But because of Teddy’s determined blindness of heart, he cannot love him or quite forgive him. —By Melvin Maddocks

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