Best of TR

by John J. Miller on April 9, 2010 · 30 comments

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

What’s your favorite book on Theodore Roosevelt? I’ve enjoyed many. For the sake of picking just one, I’ll recommend Mornings on Horseback, by David McCullough. It’s a family biography of the whole Roosevelt clan. TR is the star and McCullough describes his story from birth until the mid-1880s. Yet the book also devotes a substantial amount of attention to TR’s parents and siblings. It provides a compelling portrait of the world that shaped one of our most fascinating presidents.

Let’s get a discussion going: In the comments section, share your own advice on the literature of TR.

TR reading

  • Larry

    “The Naval War of 1812” by TR is the best book on the subject. I remember reading it and thinking who’s T Roosevelt? It was his senior thesis at Harvard and it really shows the brilliance of the man even as a 20 year old.

  • Dennis Nicholls

    I’m not sure how much commentary you are going to get on this topic. The only books on TR I’ve read are the first 2 volumes of the Edmund Morris biography, which I thought were quite good. There are many other books on TR so I hesitate to recommend the Morris bio. wholeheartedly.

    However I can wholeheartedly recommend a 1975 FILM about TR: “The Wind and The Lion” in which Brian Keith gives the performance of a lifetime as TR. It’s probably not the way TR really was but it’s for sure the way I’d like to believe he was. The DVD quality is quite good.

  • Penny Chick

    “Mornings on Horseback” Astonishing background on TR’s upbringing – a lot of love in his family. The author gives evidence to TR’s possibly psychosomatic yet severe childhood asthma attacks. Also a surprise to learn of his mother’s very strong Southern roots, and his father’s extraordinary altruism. In a number of ways, I came away thinking his father was the greater man.

  • Kathie

    I’ve read “Mornings on Horseback” and recommend it highly. For a totally different take on TR’s last years, I suggest “River of Doubt” by Candice Millard. This gripping account of Roosevelt’s exploration of an unmapped river in the Amazon presents a fascinating view of Roosevelt’s character and strength. It is also notable for its portraits of Kermit Roosevelt (who accompanied his father on the journey) and the celebrated Brazilian explorer Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon.

  • A book to avoid is “Lion in the White House” by Aida Donald. The work was more Progressive pep talk than historical…
    “[TR’s Mom’s] Southerness in no way diminished the boy’s love for her.” why would it?
    “He believed in the supremecy of Federal power over econmic systems and State rights…”
    “… he wished to update the Supreme Court to make it more responsive to the people and less attentive to property rights.”
    I learned more about the author’s political philosophy than TR.

  • Holly

    I’m with Kathie: “Mornings on Horseback” is wonderful, but “River of Doubt” grabbed me and never let go.

  • Mike Ussery

    I though that “The River of Doubt” on TR’s Amazon journey was great. It was a revealing look at the character and inner strength that can propel men to accomplish tasks they hardly thought possible. Additionally, in anything I ever read about TR, this is hardly mentioned. The author (whose name escapes me) make a convincing argument that this journey pretty much broke TR physically and that he was never the same. Just a great read.

  • Jimmy

    I second Kathie’s recommendation of “River of Doubt.” Biographical literature generally tends to focus on the subject’s early, formative years and then their prominent years in the limelight; but “River of Doubt” does just the opposite and gives us a glimpse into TR’s “waning” years. What we gather from this book is that TR’s “waning” years were anything but “waning.” TR did not go gently into that good night. A lesson for all of us. Besides that, Millard is an wonderful writer and her descriptions of the Brazilian interior and Amazonian jungle ecology are exquisite.

  • Richard

    The first bio volume of the Morris’ book; it is superb.

  • Nick Doom

    I enjoyed Nathan Miller’s “Theodore Roosevelt” published some 20 years ago, and it is still on my shelf. The prose is nicely paced to portray such a large amount of his full life from birth to death.

  • Janet

    River of Doubt was fantastic. I can’t say it was my “favorite” TR book, b/c it’s the only one I’ve read. But wow, I’m glad that was the one I picked.

  • Carolyn

    Not exactly about Theodore Roosevelt, but for supplemental reading, I recommend “The Roosevelt Women” by Betty Boyd Caroli. The book has chapters about three generations of Roosevelt women, and the chapters on Roosevelt’s mother and sisters give, I think, a new insight into his character. There are also chapters on his daughters and granddaughters. The chapter on his older sister, Anna Roosevelt Cowles, is particularly interesting.

  • I prefer Mr. McCollough’s “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914”. TR’s catching a lot of flak now as a progressive, but this was progress and patriotism at its best.

  • “Young Roosevelt” by Morris is a great read. it describes an amazing family, amazing man, amazing nation and a fascinating time. The second volume was nowhere near as thrilling, nor could it have been.

    McCullough’s “Path Between the Seas” points out the interventionist side of TR very well, capturing him in political context. “Mornings on Horseback” was a bit to hero-worshipy for me, though I like McCullough.

    All in all, a fascinating man and a very important President, which is not to say I would want him back today.

  • Greg

    I am reading and enjoying “The Big Burn” by Timothy Egan. It highlights American exceptionalism in the form of majestic natural spaces, and Roosevelt’s exceptionalism as well.

  • The Rough Riders, by T.R. himself is superb and a quick read. It gives a sense of the man, since we see him undertaking a huge enterprise — raising a regiment of cavalry, getting it trained and equipped, and getting it to Cuba to fight — in the face of all kinds of obstacles. Also, it is very hard-nosed and unsentimental about warfare.

  • Larry L.

    ““Young Roosevelt” by Morris is a great read. it describes an amazing family, amazing man, amazing nation and a fascinating time. The second volume was nowhere near as thrilling, nor could it have been.”

    I agree that “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Morris was an excellent book. There were some points going through his sickly childhood that seemed a bit tedious, however. Overall though, I thought it was better than “Theodore Rex.”

    Both books do have some laugh-out-loud vignettes that I appreciated as well.

    Looking forward to the rumored 3rd installment by Morris that is to cover his post-presidency years.

  • Fritz

    Morris’s “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” is not only one of the best books on TR, but one of the best books I’ve ever read – a true “life and times” biography, superbly written.

  • Clint Laing

    So far, Morris’ “Theodore Rex,” but that could change after I ge a shot at “The Tise…”

  • I don’t know about my favorite, but I ran across a copy of “Fear God and Take Your Own Part” while visiting a friend’s cabin. It’s full of excellent broadsides agains Woodrow Wilson and the moral failure of Progressives in the face of international aggression and evil. Many of the critiques are still appropriate today, especially against our current Commander in Chief.

  • Phil Melton

    Jim Powell’s “Bully Boy” does an excellent job of demythologizing Roosevelt and showing his role as one of the facilitators (to put it mildly) of 20th century progressivism.

  • tbob

    One of my favorites that hasn’t been mentioned yet is “First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power” by Warren Zimmermann. It’s a first rate history of how TR, Henry Cabot Lodge, Alfred Mahan, Elihu Root, and John Hay brought the U.S. into the 20th Century. It’s a fantastic read.

  • I once read a bio of TR that I can’t recall the author or title of, and lengthy Google searches have proved fruitless as well. Even worse, I’m sure I have it here, and it’s a huge hardcover book, but I can’t find it. lol. Anyway, it covered his life from his birth to becoming president, and the descriptions of New York at the turn of the last century were fantastic. I was living in NYC at the time I first read it, 1987 or 1988, and I would go by all the places the book mentioned just to try and go back in time. It’s fashionable now among conservatives to bash TR for his progressivism and interventionism, but I think it’s a bum rap, especially in light of his unalloyed patriotism. It would be nice to have a leader like him today talking about what wretches unassimilated immigrants are, as he did.

  • Cal

    Count me in on those pushing for Morris’s “Rise of Theodore Roosevelt”–not only great Roosevelt, but a truly great biography. The second book was good, but not great.

    Didn’t much care for Mornings on Horseback, but the comments here have me adding “River of Doubt” to my reading list.

  • BurningBrule

    I agree with all of the above who stated that Morris’s “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” is one of the best books on TR. Morris’s “Theodore Rex?” Not so much.

    Why has “River of Doubt” not been made into a movie?

    “T.R.: The Last Romantic” by HW Brands was good but not great.

    Tangential trivia #1: Seth Bullock was a well-known (locally) figure in Deadwood South Dakota whom T.R. befriended. If you are ever in Deadwood go to the Adams County Museum to see many Bullock items (and some including Roosevelt). See link here:

    Tangential trivia #2: As a mountain climber I have long been aware that T.R. was one of the first Americans to summit on the Matterhorn (in 1881) but I’ve never definitely learned where he ranks – was he the fifth, the tenth? I don’t know. If you are ever in Zermatt, Switzerland go to the wonderful climbing museum (the Alpine Museum) there and you will see a small exhibit to Roosevelt. Also see link here –

  • Vincent

    “Bully Boy” by Jim Powell.

    Theodore Roosevelt was one of the true “progressive” disasters of the American Presidency. Powell calls it just right.

    As a former reporter and marathon runner in Albany, NY, I only wish I’d been on the job a day in 1899 so I could have out-raced the fat bastard up the steps of the Capitol. (The sotted reporters of the time couldn’t do it.) Maybe the hit to his ego would have tempered his self-righteous statism, and prevented his logical successors: Wilson, FDR, LBJ, Carter, Clinton and Obama.

  • I was nonplused by Donald’s “Lion in the White House” – unlike Paul Johnson’s recent bio of Churchill, Donald simply couldn’t squeeze TR into a small volume. While I enjoyed the treasury of anecdotes and quotations that Morris compiled in “The Rise of …” and “Theodore Rex” – the endnotes are as good as the text – I came away feeling Morris didn’t understand the spiritual side of the man.

    Two which I did enjoy but haven’t seen mentioned yet are Henry Pringle’s Pulitzer-winner fron 1956 and Herman Hagedorn’s “The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill” (1954), which I read on the way to a Republican National Convention in New York City. It’s been a few years now but I felt at the time they both did a good job.

  • Least Favorite: The Imperial Cruise by James Bradley.

    USA Today: “…Roosevelt, who in Bradley’s telling did nothing right, diplomatically or otherwise. …

    The Westernized Japanese, Bradley says, were exempted as “honorary Aryans” who would civilize their neighbors. …

    Without Roosevelt’s encouragement of a Japanese Monroe Doctrine in Asia, Bradley writes, “maybe there would not have been a war for my father to suffer through.”

    Bradley says these agreements later came to light and then were forgotten by Americans. But he doesn’t explain why, in the 1930s, imperial Japan would act on the secret words of a man dead for more than a decade and out of office since 1909.”

    Meh–The Japanese were already expanionist–that’s why TR earned a Nobel for soothing them after they attacked Russia. In fact, MORE of TR’s Big Stick/Great white Fleet-policy was called for, not less. The Wilsonian Wishful Thinking Disarmament Policies certainly didn’t work.

  • Joe

    For context? Liberal Fascism.

  • Julie

    I have over 70 books by/about TR in my TR collection. “Best Books” on TR can be taken from both sides of the complex, bi-polar TR: the patriotic, attending-church-every-Sunday-Christian TR, the imperialist TR, the-genuine-devoted-family-man TR, the expert hunter TR OR the progressive, Square Deal, leading conservationist TR.

    You cannot truly understand TR until you understand his family,his faith, his close friends, and his wife Edith. On that note, some of the books to read, IMO, are:

    – Mornings on Horseback
    – The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
    – Edith Kermit Roosevelt by Sylvia Jukes Morris
    – Roosevelt as We Knew Him – Frederick S. Wood
    – The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill
    – The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt – Edward Wegenknecht
    – Theodore Roosevelt the Citizen – Jacob Riis
    – Letters to Kermit from TR
    – The Boys Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Hermann Hagedorn
    – Roosevelt’s Religion – Christian F. Reisner

    – Underrated/unknown book on TR’s foreign diplomacy : Velvet on Iron, the Diplomacy of TR – Frederick W. Marks III

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