This essay first appeared in the February, 2019 issue of Choice (volume 56 | issue 6).
You are primitive and modern, simple and complex;
You are one part George Washington and one part Nimrod.
(Rubén Darío. “To Roosevelt” [poem]. 1905).
TR’s New York City Knickerbocker family endearingly called the asthmatic future president “Teedie” in his prepubescence. Later, during his political ascendency, the press would jocularly refer to him by the despised nickname “Teddy,” hence the iconic “Teddy” bear. Overridingly—then, as now—the world would also attribute the sobriquet “TR” to the charismatic Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858 to January 6, 1919), the first president so familiarly addressed. In attempting to characterize TR’s outsize personality, scholars have also routinely ascribed other epithets to him, such as “conservative elitist,” “progressive reformer,” “cowboy,” “warrior,” etc. For stages of TR’s extremely complicated life—a life lived not at the margins, but centrally as the quintessentially self-styled “man in the arena”—these pigeonholing characterizations have afforded scholars conceptual insights into what friend and seminal biographer Hermann Hagedorn (The Boys’ Life of Theodore Roosevelt, 1918; Roosevelt in the Bad Lands, 1921) termed as TR’s “infinite variety.”
On the centenary of his death, this commemorative essay attempts to parse notable historiographic sources into broad annotated chronological categories. Encapsulating major events occurring throughout TR’s extraordinary sixty-plus years, these categories naturally include the seven climacterics (viz.: Action; Human Relations; Thought; Family; Spiritual Values; Public Affairs; and War and Peace) delineated in Edward Wagenknecht’s celebrated The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt. Accordingly, they also replicate some of the fifteen chapter headings that TR used in his Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography. Renowned Roosevelt scholar Serge Ricard categorizes this work as “memoirs of self-righteousness.” Initially commissioned to commemorate the centennial anniversary of TR’s birth, Wagenknecht’s classic biography was copublished by the Theodore Roosevelt Association (TRA), a nonprofit corporation founded in the year of his death and subsequently chartered by Congress as a “historical and public service organization dedicated to perpetuating the memory and ideals of Theodore Roosevelt.” In 2010, a sesquicentennial second edition was issued. It contains an introduction by the most distinguished twenty-first-century TR biographer Edmund Morris, whose critically acclaimed three-volume biography (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; Theodore Rex; and Colonel Roosevelt) has abetted TR’s apotheosis for the post-Reagan generations. Remarkably, the Modern Library selected Morris’ first volume as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time. As Morris compiled his multivolume treatment, Nathan Miller (Theodore Roosevelt: A Life) issued the first complete one-volume treatment since William H. Harbaugh’s 1961 Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, both of which—due to the exceptional quality of their research and narrative éclat—are considered the two best single-volume biographies of TR. Of Wagenknecht’s “remarkable volume,” Morris would write, “he focuses his scope on whatever aspect of T.R. he finds interesting, spectacular, poignant, admirable … or even pathological … without ever sentimentalizing him.” Additionally, TRA published “The State of Theodore Roosevelt Studies,” a survey listing “great classics that dominate the field” by Serge Ricard, who also edited A Companion to Theodore Roosevelt, an authoritative anthology of specialty essays “blend[ing] critical scholarship with clarity of expression” (Journal of Transatlantic Studies).
Charles L. Brown is assistant provost and dean of University Libraries at Sullivan University