(Lt. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt)
When ranking American presidents Theodore Roosevelt is usually positioned among the top five in American history. His life is fascinating as a number of biographies highlight. Probably the most impactful is Edmund Morris’ biographic trilogy among many others. Roosevelt’s life reflects a weak child growing up in New York City who overcame his physical limitations who thrived on being physically fit; a career that included being New York City Police Commissioner, Governor of New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and the presidency. Along the way he evolved into a central figure in the Spanish-American War and a committed naturalist and conservationist. After his political career ended his exploits continued as he engaged in sustained travel and continued his writing centering on history and nature. Clearly, a full life.
To tackle Theodore Roosevelt as a subject of historical fiction is quite an undertaking. However, novelist Jeff Shaara was undaunted and committed to the task resulting in his eighteenth historical novel, THE OLD LION: A NOVEL OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT. Shaara originally made his mark authoring GODS AND GENERALS and THE LAST FULL MEASURE, which are the prequel and sequel to his father’s award winning novel, THE KILLER ANGELS. Among his novels are topics that include the American Revolution, the Mexican War, the Civil War, World War I and II, the Korean War and his latest which he is about to complete on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
(First Lady, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt)
Choosing Roosevelt as the focus of his novel created a dilemma. How does an author pick and choose areas of concentration in such a rich life when the book is not supposed to be a traditional biography? Shaara has done so with ease and class as he delves into important public and private aspects of the former Rough Rider.
Shaara begins the novel pointing to two important components of Roosevelt’s development, his battle with asthma and his relationship with his father. Both provide the key motivations developing physically as Alfred Adler, an important Neo-Freudian has written that individuals who suffer from a self-perceived inferiority complex strive their entire lives to achieve superiority to overcome it. In Roosevelt’s case his lungs and his father’s encouragement and acting as a role model for his son allowed him to develop “the strenuous life,” which led to his obsession with natural history and his love of nature.
Throughout the book, Shaara formulates a Roosevelt that is never far from his need for adventure and his naturalist education. Shaara picks and chooses very carefully scenes from his protagonist’s life. Each segment is well written, and it allows the reader to develop an intimate relationship with future “Bull Moose.” Shaara does not provide a writer’s note, a la Steve Berry, which would explain his sources and what he considers fact and fiction. Doing so would greatly enhance the reader’s experience and trust in the material presented.
Shaara’s tool in organizing the novel is a series of interviews conducted by New York Times reporter Hermann Hagedorn which took place at the end of December 1918 which allows Roosevelt to look back on his life and fill in gaps that are not fully developed by the author. Shaara uses the interviews as a bridge between the time Roosevelt left for the Dakotas in 1887 and his experiences in the war with Spain in 1898. Shaara focuses on his family and career and his commitment to reform – rooting out corruption as Civil Service Commissioner, New York City Police Commissioner, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
The structure of the novel is effective with Hagedorn’s interviews filling in the gaps. At first Roosevelt’s constant battle with asthma and his relationship with his father is stressed. Shaara moves on to a section, perhaps his best dealing with Roosevelt’s commitment to ranching and living in the Dakota Badlands as a vehicle to decompress after the deaths of his mother and his first wife Alice within a twenty-four hour period. The section highlights his relationship with “real” cowboys and cattle ranchers and the difficulties of running a successful cattle business. This is followed with a detailed discussion of events leading to and the actual fighting of the Spanish-American War which turned Roosevelt into a hero and a viable candidate for high office. Shaara moves on to an exploration of Roosevelt’s rise to the Vice Presidency and Presidency once William McKinley is assassinated and implementing a progressive agenda. Shaara’s last section brings the novel to a close. Entitled “The Old Lion,” the author again employs Hagedorn to ferret out of Roosevelt his reactions to The Treaty of Portsmouth, taking the Panama Canal, difficulties with William Howard Taft, escaping assassination, and dangerous sojourns to Africa and the Amazon where he almost perishes.
Shaara’s Roosevelt is a dichotomy. He employs his effusive personality and energy to his legislative agenda as President. His “Square Deal” includes a reform agenda which mostly passes Congress and encompasses issues of improving working conditions, controlling trusts, and race. It is interesting to read his views dealing with non-white Americans and trying to improve their lot, and at the same time engaging in a foreign policy based on Social Darwinism. Foremost, Shaara’s Roosevelt is an egoist which he balances with great empathy for others especially members of his Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War for which a great deal of respect and trust for him by his men is reciprocated.
The book is clearly not a complete biography in novel form as Shaara stresses certain aspects of Roosevelt’s life. The two most important components are his family whose credit goes to his childhood companion Edith Crow who becomes his second wife and his children. Second is his commitment to the environment developing nature preserves, national parks, and conservation. A wonderful book that encompasses this aspect of Roosevelt’s life is historian Douglas Brinkley’s mammoth work; THE WILDERNESS WARRIOR: THEODORE ROOSEVELT AND THE CRUSADE FOR AMERICA.
Against the backdrop of the Wild West, San Juan Hill and the jungles of Brazil, the White House appeared to be less satisfying for Roosevelt. Perhaps this explains why the sections of the novel that follow his presidency read more like straightforward and familiar history. Many of the details and events in this section are nevertheless significant and lively. We see Roosevelt confront racism in Congress after meeting with Booker T. Washington at the White House, we learn how the term “Speak softly and carry a big stick” evolved and we discover the origin of teddy bears. The novel, if that is a correct characterization of Shaara’s work, is thoughtfully written and provides many insights into the most energetic and effusive person who dominated his presidency and the time period in which he lived.