The Wilderness Warrior
Theodore Roosevelt and the
Crusade for America
Harper: 960 pp., $34.99
Reviewing several Roosevelt biographies in 1920, H.L. Mencken reported that he had found more “gush” than “sense.” Douglas Brinkley’s “The Wilderness Warrior,” a novel attempt to tell Theodore Roosevelt’s life not from the cradle to the grave but with a focus on his subject’s environmental interests, walks a fine line between the two, giving us plenty of sense -- and good sense too -- along with the expected truckload of gush. Warts and all, Roosevelt is the very man we need today as the number of species in America continues to decline.
Many of Brinkley’s more acid asides are directed against “left-leaning historians,” apt to fault Roosevelt (don’t ever call him “Teddy,” by the way) for things he couldn’t possibly have known or seen. Not so Brinkley, who wanted to write his book as Roosevelt would have written it himself -- in strong, taut masculine prose, resonating with the same fierce resolve as one of Roosevelt’s executive orders: “I do so declare.” And Brinkley wanted to make it a big book too -- a book so big, in fact, that if it were an animal Roosevelt probably would have tried to shoot it.
Brinkley’s Roosevelt is P.T. Barnum, Walt Whitman and Captain Ahab all rolled into one, a powerful poseur who became so adept at playing his many roles (author, hunter, naturalist, policeman, president, provocateur) that it became impossible to tell the man from his larger-than-life masks. In Brinkley’s pages, liberally sprinkled with exclamation points and trademark Rooseveltian phrases such as “bully” or “by Jove,” a lost, somewhat troubling world comes alive again in which real men, full of “hearty cheer,” “take a shine” to each other and, in the American wilderness, “bag” or “flush out” as many creatures as they can. Women make only cameo appearances here.
It is impossible to name all the species on which Roosevelt laid, to quote from a memorable Emily Dickinson poem, his “emphatic thumb,” sometimes in the name of natural history but more frequently for his own personal pleasure -- as, Brinkley likes to say, a “tonic” for the soul. The dismal list of Roosevelt’s victims includes prairie chickens, 300-pound bighorns, mangy coyotes and towering grizzly bears (no, the story of Roosevelt refusing to shoot a cute bear cub that his guide had lassoed for him is not true).
Roosevelt’s appetite for crazy adventures was limitless, making him the father of the modern survival vacation. One wonders, though, what his wilderness guides really thought of him when, shivering under thin blankets in the cold September rain of the Badlands, they heard him exclaim: “But this is fun!” Shedding the limitations imposed on him at birth, this myopic, asthmatic Ivy League graduate and millionaire’s son from Manhattan successfully transformed himself into the “cowboy President.” Blazing a trail of destruction, first through his beloved Adirondacks and then through most of the Western landscape, Roosevelt, a chronic insomniac, realized only later that what he himself had actively helped decimate actually was worth preserving. That light at the end of the long, dark tunnel of male bonding, though it might have flickered unsteadily at times, guided our hero, especially after he assumed the presidency in 1901. A few years earlier, C. Hart Merriam of the Biological Survey named what he regarded a new species of elk, Cervus roosevelti, after him. The 800-pound Roosevelt elk was found mainly in the Olympic Mountains, and it is almost touching to see how invested Roosevelt became in this creature’s welfare.
Brinkley’s main ambition in this engrossing, compellingly written book is not to delve into the murky depths of Roosevelt’s private obsessions. First and foremost, he wants to set his environmental record straight: Enter our first “green” president. Literary types such as Mark Twain (who thought that Roosevelt was a clown who had not matured beyond age 14) and Mencken (who compared him to a longshoreman who was eternally engaged in clearing out barrooms) got him all wrong. They never even noticed his conservationist work. And they jolly well should have. Roosevelt’s presidency ended in 1909: By then, Roosevelt had expanded protected areas -- bird reservations, national forests and national monuments -- to a stunning 234 million acres.
But was the man with the masculine swagger and appalling displays of swashbuckling virility really so separate from the one who signed those national monuments into existence? Circumventing Congress and the ordinary rules of the debate, Roosevelt ruled by executive order. With “a stroke of the presidential pen” he created facts where others saw problems. “The Wilderness Warrior” raises some worrisome questions about the ability of social collectives to take effective action when and where it is urgently needed. As Mencken shrewdly observed, Roosevelt, who would rather camp out with his naturalist friends John Burroughs or John Muir than meet with members of Congress, didn’t believe in democracy so much as he did in government. Essentially, the former police commissioner of New York never stopped being a policeman, appointing his own favorite outdoorsmen -- with such colorful names as Captain Jack “Catch ‘em Alive” Abernathy -- to positions in federal law enforcement, tackling the loathsome poachers head on.
The names of Roosevelt’s forests and parks cascade off the pages of Brinkley’s book, one evocative name after another -- Luquillo National Forest in Puerto Rico, Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, Sullys Hill in North Dakota, Mesa Verde in Colorado, the Petrified Forest of Arizona, the Devils Tower in Wyoming, Pelican Island in Florida, the Alexander Archipelago in Alaska and, of course, Mt. Olympus in Washington, where Cervus roosevelti roamed free. Roosevelt also oversaw the reintroduction of the bison in the first federal game preserve he created, the Wichita Forest in Oklahoma. In March 1907, 15 terrified animals (seven bulls and eight cows), traveled from the Bronx National Zoo to the Wichita Mountains to be fruitful and multiply (they complied).
For me, though, one of the more indelible images left by Brinkley’s book involves neither the Western prairies nor fierce predators. I’m thinking of the 100 squirrels that would line up, military fashion, on the White House lawn, waiting for the president to come out and feed them.
Irmscher is the editor of “John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings” and teaches 19th century American literature at Indiana University, Bloomington.