Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Theodore Roosevelt by Louis Auchincloss

I am officially in love with this series of books after having read only one of them!  The American Presidents series, put together by General Editor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (preeminent political historian and the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities Medal), prides itself on striving

"to present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student and authoritative enough for the scholar (from their website)."

A host of notable authors lend their talents to these compact and lucid volumes including (but not limited to!) Louis Auchincloss, Robert Dallek, Elizabeth Drew and Douglas Brinkley.


The bookgroup I lead at work is meeting at the end of the month to discuss presidential biographies and I chose the volume on Theodore Roosevelt written by Louis Auchincloss from the American Presidents series and it is WoNdErFuL!  I will be the first to admit that I was intimidated when the group selected presidential biographies as a topic but what a delight to find this series.  Each volume is more an essay than a scouring biography.  The website describes it best:

Each volume will be an incisive, meditation-length biographical essay that focuses on the subject's presidency, even as it offers a distillation of his life, character, and career.

I found the information accessible and interesting, artfully arranged and compulsively readable. 

Teddy Roosevelt was a man quick to anger and quicker to love.  An avid hunter, TD on safari was an angel of death who racked up considerable kills: nine lions, eight elephants, twenty zebras, seven giraffes, and six buffaloes.  Yet during his tenure as president, TD increased our national forests from 42 million acres to 172 million (much to the disgust and dismay of the timber industry) and created fifty-one national wildlife refuges.  

It is this internal opposition that Auchincloss's essay is best at portraying.  He asks the reader, more than once, to consider TD's words and deeds not only within the context of his time but also in ours.  Would the same actions fly in our current time?  Would speeches and opinions such as TD's make him a pariah in the 21st century?

I love a book that takes me outside of my comfort zone and this one, despite being nonfiction, did that as well as some of the best fiction I've read.  I'll say again that I really liked the way that Auchincloss engages the reader, asking, in active language, he/she to consider how TD would fare in today's world or how the reader might fare in TD's.  Auchincloss has piqued my interest in TD's battles with William Howard Taft (unfortunately, not represented in The American President's series!) and Woodrow Wilson (I have requested this volume from another library!).  I don't know that I'll get to them before my bookgroup meets, but I'm going to give it my best shot!

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