Clearly, I’ve been on a David McCullough spree of late. In part, I love the richness of Edward Herrmann’s voice as he reads the stories of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. But mostly, it’s McCullough’s storytelling abilities. He brings the historical figures very much back to life through their letters and others’ comments and writings about them. For Mornings on Horseback, which is about the young Theodore Roosevelt and his unique upbringing in New York among a patrician but gregarious family, I can only imagine the wealth of material that McCullough sifted through. No doubt he exercised great restraint, especially when he reveals at the end that TR wrote 150,000 letters throughout his lifetime.
Perhaps the narrow focus (something always encouraged in my college and grad school classes) helps here. The book covers the courtship between the elder Theodore Roosevelt, a wealthy New York businessman, and the southern belle Mittie Bullock. McCullough hints that the character of Scarlett O’Hara was based on the vivacious Mittie, who is a bright character throughout the first half of the book. They had four children, whom we know through their childhood nicknames: Bammy (Anna), Teedie (Theodore), Ellie (Elliott — Eleanor Roosevelt’s father), and Coney (Corinne). The enthusiasm for life, the curiosity in the world, the emphasis on books and knowledge all contribute to a wholly exciting, enthralling family existence that takes the Roosevelts from New York’s upper crust to Europe and back; to Oyster Bay for family retreats; to Egypt while a grand home was being built in New York; and back again to Manhattan.
Some of the telling details about the young TR are the small ones. For instance, when he first puts on glasses as a young man, he begins to see birds clearly, as well of the rest of the world, of course. Once able to see and armed with a shotgun (a gift from his beloved father), he starts shooting at everything in sight, particularly on the family’s trip to Egypt. Apparently Teedie’s dead fowl, taxidermy kit, and person smelled terrible, as his sisters noted. TR’s fondness for hunting is something that McCullough seems ambivalent about. On one hand, he notes how well TR understood and appreciated wildlife. On the other, McCullough evinces no pleasure or pride in the big and small game that Roosevelt hunted all his life.
Family bonds were crucial among the Roosevelts. It’s moving to learn of how much the elder Theodore and Mittie interacted with their children and prized their relationships, and in turn, their children adored and idolized them. The younger TR became the same way after he remarried and had five children with his second wife, Edith. (His first wife, Alice, died tragically right after childbirth, and his mother died the same day of typhoid fever. He essentially abandoned his daughter to Bammy for the first few years of her life while he went to the Dakotas to live as a cowboy.) I’m very close to my parents, and I found it moving to “hear” about how much joy and pride Theodore Roosevelt took in being his children’s great companion.
The multifaceted nature of Theodore Roosevelt is something that I think is absent from our images of national leaders. He was a man of complexity: someone who loved poetry and read every book he could get his hands on, yet also a man at home driving cattle and working as hard as any man on a ranch. He wrote prolifically, unabashedly loved his wives, committed himself to public service in a way that seems authentic, rather than just an exercise in power. He loved the power, to be sure, but as he preached and lived out virtues and morals, there was more to it than our cynical political age would allow us to believe of a politician like that today. The multiplicity of TR’s personality has to be a key reason why he is such an enduring figure.
There’s so much material in a book like this that it’s hard to decide what to touch on. I guess the main thing I take away from it is the sense of what a great man Theodore Roosevelt was, and how much he was a product of his family and his upbringing. There’s a reason why he’s on Mount Rushmore, why he’s a revered President, why he looms large in American history. Although Mornings on Horseback only lightly deals with his presidency through the epilogue, learning about his formative years is just as telling, if not more so, about the making of his character. It makes you want to live life more vigorously, as he did.