Biographies & Memoirs

Introduction

ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ideas to convey in writing history and biography is that events past were never on a track. Things could have gone any number of different ways for any number of reasons almost any time, and they who lived in those other vanished years had no way of knowing how it would all turn out any more than we do. That the frail, frightened, peculiar little boy who is the center of this book would turn out to be the robust Theodore Roosevelt of history, symbol of American confidence and vitality at the turn of the twentieth century, is surely a case in point.

Theodore Roosevelt is a writer’s delight and, to a degree that I’m not sure I adequately conveyed in my original author’s note, I had a wonderful time writing this book. To begin with there was the freedom I felt in the kind of book it was to be. I had no intention or writing a conventional biography. I felt no requirement to begin at the beginning of my protagonist’s life or end at the end. I would concentrate instead on a handful of formative years, less than twenty, and close the story just as his great part in national life was about to begin. I had mainly to tell a family story and absent the weight of a lot of obligatory history.

Then there was the very great pleasure of working with the Roosevelt family papers at Harvard. I can’t imagine anyone in a graduate program at Harvard having a better time than I did over four years reading in the Houghton Library. And how good were the long conversations with the best of the Roosevelt storytellers—P. James Roosevelt of Oyster Bay and Sheffield Cowles of Connecticut, both kinsmen of Theodore Roosevelt and both gone now, and John Gable, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, who knows more about Theodore Roosevelt than anyone alive.

I had the thrill of seeing North Dakota for the first time, the pleasure of meeting and talking to state historians, ranchers, men very like those Theodore Roosevelt knew. I remember one in particular who when I asked him if there were any expressions peculiar to the state said emphatically, “Oh, you betcha!” Another time I remarked on how the wind seems always to blow there. “They say,” he replied, “if the wind ever stops blowing in North Dakota, all the chickens will fall down.”

There were weekend expeditions with my family to Sagamore Hill, a house that speaks of the man and the family who lived there about as clearly as any house in America. And there was the pure joy of writing a story set in New York in what was one of its most vibrant, fascinating eras.

I knew nothing about the agonies of asthma when I began the book, nothing about taxidermy or fashionable nineteenth century sojourns on the Nile, and I learned a great deal about all such matters. But then it is what you learn by writing that gives the work its pull.

If there was one discovery or revelation that meant the most, it was coming to know Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., who is central to this book, as he was in the life of his small namesake. I think it is fair to say that one can not really know Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth President of the United States, without knowing the sort of man his father was. Indeed, if I could have one wish for you the reader, it would be that you come away from the book with a strong sense of what a great man Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. was.

Who is to say what would have become of little “Teedie” had he had a different kind of father? Or in what direction his career might have gone had his father not died so tragically when he did? But then, as I have said, there were always so many ways things could have gone differently.

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