Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Book Review #2: "The River of Doubt"

After an interview with Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain wrote that "the President is clearly insane, and insanest upon war and its supreme glories."

This opinion was widely shared during TR's lifetime.  Although it not taken seriously now -- remember how both  Republicans and Democrats stumbled over themselves in the last campaign to claim his mantle -- one cannot walk away from reading anything at all about his life without understanding why his opponents might have doubted his sanity, and even wondering whether they were right.

Now, a personal aside.  We ourselves feel a certain deep affection, even kinship, for the Rough Rider.  The Dutch ancestors of his family and ours owned farms only a mile or two distant in Manhattan.  We have lived near to both his birthplace and his Long Island estate.  We are longtime members of the American Museum of Natural History, outside of which is a massive equestrian bronze of TR.  Our chosen vacation spot is in the midst of the Adirondack State Park, which Roosevelt helped create.  For that matter, Baby Anonymous shares a first name with the president.

All that said, we still have our own doubts about his sanity.  Roosevelt was brilliant, his personality virtually a force of nature, as elemental as gravity or magnetism.  But he genuinely did seem to love war, not just the idea but his own limited practice of it.   We have always been troubled by the idea of a wealthy dilettante organizing his own semi-private military unit and leading it into combat, then using his exploits as a springboard into public life.  Never mind that this "combat" was in a war of pure aggression, made palatable to the public only by spurious "evidence" of evil intent on the other side.  (Sound familiar?) 

At the very least, TR seems to us to have suffered from what Gary Wills called, speaking of the Kennedy brothers, as "the imprisonment of toughness."  By this we mean a constant need to demonstrate his own courage and fortitude, both in arduous physical tests and in the tough-guy school of politics.  This is not necessarily a sign of mental impairment, but it does hint at some scary demons below the surface.

Well, Candice Millard's The River of Doubt will do nothing to resolve the question of Roosevelt's sanity, although that question surely lurks beneath the surface of of the story.  But setting aside the question, which Millard touches upon only once, and gently, the story itself is a ripping yarn if ever we have read one.

It goes like this:  Having lost his 1912 third-party presidential bid (during which he was shot in the chest, and proceeded to give a speech wearing his bloody shirt and with a bullet buried five inches in his flesh), Roosevelt fell into one of his periodic slumps.  His customary remedy for these bouts of depression was a physical challenge, and so -- encouraged by some friends -- he signs on for an Amazonian expedition, to run a previously unmapped river in the heart of Brazil.

But, some friends!  Among the key organizers of the expedition is a priest on the faculty at Notre Dame, whose previous experience in South America was very slight indeed.  The priest hires as his quartermaster, responsible for outfitting the expedition, an explorer whose reputation had been ruined by the utter failure of his own single expedition -- to the Arctic. 

The Roosevelt expedition is poorly conceived and wrongly equipped.  It has the wrong food, the wrong boats, the wrong people.  But it also has a few of the right people -- the tough-as-nails explorer Candido Rondon, who has charted more of the Amazon forest than any man alive, losing hundreds of soldiers in the process; George Cherrie, a smart, solid naturalist who wants nothing more than to get home to Vermont.  A bunch of camaradas, essentially enlisted men in the Brazilian army, who at every turn demonstrate unbelievable strength and courage.  (All but one .... )

At the center of it are Roosevelt and his son Kermit.  Kermit is the most introverted of Roosevelt's children, but also the most reckless in his pursuit of danger and glory.  Recently engaged, Kermit doesn't want to be there at all; but he has come along to protect his father.  Does does his father need protection?  This is Teddy Roosevelt, the Colonel, the Bull Moose.  What kind of protection does a man like that need?

Quite a bit, because Roosevelt is hiding an old injury, which threatens his life under the best of circumstances.  And these are the worst of circumstances:  a group of men, fighting their way down savage rapids in unreliable boats, fighting infection and disease, watched by Indians with poison-tipped arrows, racing time as their provisions run out and they are in danger of starvation.  And there is a murderer in their midst.

Yeah, this is a great story, and Millard tells it well.  She has pulled out a ton of information, from archival material to interviews not only with modern-day experts on Amazonian ecology but also with some of the Cinta Larga Indians, who have passed on their own ancestral memories of the expedition.  

Honestly, friends.  We at the Egg read a lot of thrillers and tales of derring-do, but few of them actually thrill us.  This one did, as few books have since we were ten years old.   Poor Mother Anonymous is actually tired of hearing us shriek in horror or delight at the best scenes.  (She threatened to take the book away if we woke her up again).  So if you are feeling a little cooped up underneath the winter snow, or if the daily grind has ground you down, consider this for your midwinter escapist vacation.

And as you read, ask yourself:  Was he brilliant?  Or was he insane?


Diane said...

I have always been fascinated by TR, (not the war-part though, the progressive part). He started the SEC; inheritance taxes; wanted to somehow mitigate the gap between rich and poor. He was rich, so was not so fascinated by the virtues of rich people. went up against corporations.

So, in order to get a clearer picture, we'll have to read this one, too. Maybe he was insane.

Father said...

If he was, it was in a selective way. Roosevelt was profoundly gifted, not just with his magnetic personality but also intellectually. Millard makes a point of reminding us just how deep his scientific knowledge went, especially regarding birds. Edmund Morris describes his facility with languages, which was considerable.

Of course, being smart doesn't equal being stable. And when I hear "magnetic personality" these days, I cringe and mutter "narcissistic personality disorder."

But then again, maybe TR's "craziness" was simply the part of him that was a creature of his time -- the end of Romanticism, and the full-throttle rush of Euro-American imperialism. It may be that his thinking about war wasn't so different from the thinking of the millions who marched off to WWI. Or, more to the point, of the men who sent them to their deaths, in Ezra Pound's words, "all for an old bitch gone at the teeth," meaning just the sort of civilization men like Roosevelt thought they had created.

If that's true, then, the "craziness" was simply TR being a man of his time, and what makes him stand out are the other things: the passion for justice, especially directed against "malefactors of great wealth;" the intellectual gifts; the drive to make and remake himself, not as the man he was born to be but as the man he desired to be.

And crazy or not, when you take him as a package, there is one thing about TR that just keeps coming back: It is impossible to imagine any other American president combining his particular gifts.

Oh, we've had some war genuine wear heroes -- Eisenhower, anybody? And neither intellectual wattage (Nixon, Clinton) nor a passion for justice (FDR, Carter, even LBJ) are unknown in the Oval Office. And Jefferson was a pretty fair naturalist.

But all together? No. And given the narrow focus that today's statesmen seem to have -- policy, politics, and little more -- it is hard to imagine any future president breaking broncos or exploring an unknown river. They'll all be too busy raising money and giving speeches.