Edmund Morris’ masterful new biography, Colonel Roosevelt, lets readers take part in the last decade of the legendary president’s extraordinary life.There’s a scene halfway through Edmund Morris’ new biography, Colonel Roosevelt (Random House, $35), in which former President Theodore Roosevelt lectures an audience on the art of writing about history. “Very accurate, very real and vivid, presentation of the past can come only from one in whom the imaginative gift is strong,” he extols.
Roosevelt would undoubtedly approve of Morris, whose intricate, intimately detailed writing captures the captivating, complex life of the man hailed in his time as “the most interesting American.” It’s no easy feat; this is Teddy Roosevelt we’re talking about, the Rough Rider hero of San Juan Hill — he of the “bully pulpit,” a big-game hunter and a champion of conservation. Little wonder Morris, the Kenyan-born former authorized biographer of Ronald Reagan, has devoted 30 years and three books to this larger-than-life legend. Morris’ first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. Its highly celebrated 2001 follow-up, Theodore Rex, examined Roosevelt’s time in the Oval Office.
The final installment in the trilogy, the 784-page Colonel Roosevelt chronicles the time between Roosevelt’s departure from the White House in 1909 and his death 10 years later. He may have been out of office, but he was hardly out of power. On a grand tour of Europe in 1910, commoners and royalty alike clamored for his company, to the point where the King of Norway’s arrival at his doorstep prompted him to declare, “Confound these kings; will they never let me alone!”
Roosevelt’s read on world affairs — an ascendant Japan, unrest in the Middle East — was ahead of his time and still resonates today. Yet, as his political fortunes began to swing like a metronome — particularly as his hawkish stance on World War I clashed with President Woodrow Wilson’s neutrality policy — Roosevelt’s views often fell on deaf ears in Washington, despite the ever-increasing volume of his unmistakable voice.
However, politics were but one facet of this kaleidoscopic character. Morris portrays the man in full, thanks to his exhaustive research of not only Roosevelt’s papers but also those of his family and colleagues. He puts readers in the canoe along with the adventure seeker on his nearly fatal 1913 river expedition in Brazil, in the art gallery with the Renaissance man as he examines the paintings of Matisse and other artists of the “lunatic fringe” (a phrase he coined) at a groundbreaking 1913 exhibition, and in the family’s Sagamore Hill home with the bereaved father as he mourns the 1918 wartime death of his youngest son, Quentin. Morris’ account is accurate, real, vivid — and well worth the read.