Theodore Roosevelt has been one of my favorite historical figures for almost my entire adult life. As someone who has a hard time narrowing down my own interests (let alone reading list), the breadth and depth of his pursuits is both fascinating and reassuring. As someone who enjoys being outside in wild spaces, his efforts in preserving them has been inspiring.
He’s also one of the most intellectually challenging figures for me. Without delving too far into politics, I generally prefer the federal government to cast a smaller shadow in the average American’s life than is generally the case. TR’s progressive vision and use of the “bully pulpit” therefore give me pause, force me to reflect, and often leave me scratching my head and short of answers. However, one area where his inclinations and my beliefs intersect is in the preservation of the commons and protection of public lands.
This is the central theme of Douglas Brinkley’s Wilderness Warrior. Calling it a biography of Roosevelt, while technically accurate, sells it short. Yes, you’ll read about his somewhat sickly youth. You’ll read about his time at Harvard (and see pictures of the pretty epic sideburns he wore in his early adulthood). You’ll read about the Rough Riders and his time as a rancher. But all of this revolves around the central theme of the fondness he developed early in life, thanks in part to his Uncle Robert, for nature – and the efforts he made as governor and president on its behalf.
Brinkley is a professor at Rice University, author of almost two dozen books, and member of the Council on Foreign Affairs (which is to say, he certainly doesn’t need my review to sell his book – and not just because it’s been out for almost a decade). Among his other awards, this book earned the 2009 National Outdoor Book Award.
Not surprisingly, then, the book is thoroughly researched and richly annotated. If you’re anything like me, its notes section will make your “want to read list” have a bit of a growth spurt. It takes short detours to explore the lives and exploits of people who lived where the rubber of TR’s initiatives met the proverbial road. While those detours add a bit to the work’s heft, I felt it placed this focused biography – this exploration of but one aspect of a larger-than-life man’s multi-faceted personality – in a broader and richer context.
If there’s a downside to the book, it’s that its length and detail might make it less than accessible to a casual reader. While I’m enough of a bibliophile and history geek to have thoroughly enjoyed it, I have to admit that it’s not quite the sort of history or biography that feels more like a story. It doesn’t always move fast, and the sheer amount of information packed into it can make it at times a slightly dense read. But the reader sufficiently interested in Theodore Roosevelt, protection of wild spaces, or both, will be richly rewarded for their time.