While I enjoy reading about all of our presidents, no one can compare to Teddy Roosevelt for pure entertainment. His life is a fascinating combination of tragedy, adventure, accomplishment, and perseverance. These central characteristics are at the heart of William Hazelgrove's engaging new book, Forging a President: How the Wild West Created Teddy Roosevelt.
The author of several novels along with a well-received book on Edith and Woodrow Wilson, Hazelgrove brings his skills as a novelist to Roosevelt's fascinating western adventures, He writes with a tremendous eye for detail and a style that I found compelling. For example, he writes, "The country had just been stitched together, but the threads were weak and snapped in violent places. Teddy Roosevelt was a man with one foot in the past, in the Wild West town of Little Missouri, and one in the present, three thousand miles to the east in New York." Here we get the tension of a nation being transformed in relation to a young man under the same stress.
Hazelgrove argues that TR's time in the Dakota territory made him into the man who would go on to become governor, president, and an all-around force of nature. He suggests that TR "would find the essence of America in the frozen and baking terrain of the Badlands. Here the character of America presented itself to Roosevelt, and he essentially became that character."
He raises the idea of self-making repeatedly, often to great effect. It's in these moments that his sense of timing is particularly winning. "The sickly asthmatic son of a rich man in Manhattan was born in the East; the Bull Moose who spoke for an hour and a half with a .38 caliber bullet in his chest, well, he was born in the West." There's something about that "well" that makes this work for me in a way that I can't imagine this sentence without it.
While these moments work for me, there are some weaknesses to Hazelgrove's work. The argument becomes repetitive at times as he tells us over and over that these Dakota adventures were part of a self-making journey. But I want to hear more about how this played out in Roosevelt's career. Since Hazelgrove only briefly touches on the post-Dakota years, it's hard to see how this analysis holds up.
Hazelgrove is a fantastic storyteller, but he is not at his best when he offers claims about Roosevelt scholarship. He writes, "Later scholars treated the months after the death of his wife and mother as if they meant nothing more than a man going on vacation, the impact of his personal loss is unduly minimized." Because he offers no examples or citations, it's impossible to know if this is an accurate statement. Although I would add that I haven't encountered such a claim in any of my readings on Theodore Roosevelt.
These issues aside, this is a highly entertaining read that is easy to fly through with the speed of Teddy Roosevelt racing across the Dakota landscape on horseback. While it's not a book for scholars or readers hoping for a complete view of Roosevelt's life, it is an excellent read, filled with thrilling, fascinating stories. It's the perfect book to escape with on your next vacation.
Review: Three out of four stars.