The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

“You must always remember that the president is about six.”

— Sir Cecil Spring Rice, British diplomat and friend

There are a handful of personalities in the entirety of history whose lives are so incredible that to read about them will ruin a person to the idea of “mere fiction” because fiction can’t even live in the shadow of their larger than life reality.  For example, consider Alexander the Great, Winston Churchill, Henry VIII, Khutulun, Rasputin, Boudicca, Christopher Lee… you get the idea.

Theodore Roosevelt would go on to become a figure of folk legend, called the first of the American Caesars.  He was born in 1858 to parental polar opposites: his father was a Lincoln Republican, his mother a staunch Confederate supporter.  He was adored by Edith Wharton, reviled by Mark Twain, holds the world record for most hands shaken, and was remembered, mostly fondly, by virtually everyone who ever met him.  He was sickly child who built himself into a dynamo in order to match his physique to his sharp mind.  He was an avid reader of all manner of fiction and nonfiction, devouring sometimes three books a day with perfect recall — even decades after the fact — and a scientific curiosity.  He was a naturalist, a conservationist, a big game hunter, a soldier, an historian, a statesman, a progressive, an author, and the youngest man to become President of the United States at age 42 (due to the assassination of William McKinley; John F. Kennedy was the youngest elected to office).

This Pulitzer Prize winning book, the first of what would become a trilogy, is often considered to be the definitive biography on the man, the myth, the legend.  It covers Roosevelt’s early years from his birth to his ascendency to the Presidency in 1901.  Called “Teedie” in his youth, Roosevelt was a constant source of terror and consternation to his family, often catching, skinning, and preserving animals in the name of science.  By the time he was fifteen, he had “traveled exhaustively in Britain, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, visiting their great cities time and again, and actually living in some for long periods.  He had plumbed the catacombs and climbed the Great Pyramid.  He had slept in a monastery and toured a harem.  He had hunted jackals on horseback, kissed the Pope’s hand, stared into a volcano, traced an ancient civilization to its source, and followed the wanderings of Jesus.  He had been exposed to much of the world’s greatest art and architecture, become conversant in two foreign languages, and felt as much at home in Arabic bazaars as in a German coffee klatch or on the shaven lawns of an English estate.”  With his sights on Harvard, he would spend the next couple of years meeting those requirements, learning Greek, Latin, and mathematics while completing the building of his body.

Makes you feel like your own life might have been easy or even misspent, doesn’t it?  But that doesn’t even scratch the surface.  Roosevelt would go on to an illustrious political career, be the author of a small library’s worth of books, operate in concert with environmental and conservation groups, lead soldiers into battle, hunt murderous outlaws across frozen wastes and bring them in alive, build a private estate, raise a family, and earn the respect of men and women almost at first sight across all walks of life.  And this was before he became president.  If you’re easily depressed by the achievements of others, you might not want to read his story.  But if you’re in desperate need of inspiration or a kick in the pants, Roosevelt’s can-do attitude comes across loud and clear within these pages.  Love him or hate him, it’s impossible not to respect him.


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