The Brown Baggers book club met on Thursday, April 20th to discuss Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough. This biography of Theodore Roosevelt encompassed his early years, including his family background and history, through his phase as a cowboy driving cattle in the west. The book described how the president “came to be.” The book only briefly touched on Roosevelt’s political ambitions and foray into politics, since Roosevelt had not really entered politics at this stage in his life.
Mornings on Horseback was rich with detail, which some readers really enjoyed while others thought this caused the book to be a little dry. For example, the author describes how Teddy Roosevelt suffered from asthma as a child and throughout early adulthood. McCullough provided a very in-depth analysis of the potential causes of his asthma and the treatment for it at that time, as well as how the family dealt with the chronic illness and how it affected different members of the family. When and how often Roosevelt had an asthma attack was also noted. Some readers thought this level of detail detracted from the story.
Readers were delighted to gain insight into Roosevelt’s early life. Some found it curious that both Teddy Roosevelt and his older sister had difficulty seeing clearly as children, but it took their parents many years to learn that they both needed glasses. It was also fascinating to read about the family’s vacations, which would last over a year and were quite lavish. Roosevelt’s years at Harvard are also documented. Roosevelt spent a considerable amount of money while at Harvard, about $2,400 on clothes and club dues in two years, “a sum the average American family could have lived on for six years” during that time period.
The author explained how depressed Roosevelt was after the death of his first wife, Alice- this is when Roosevelt spent several years in the Badlands on a cattle ranch. It seemed as if Roosevelt could not cope with the passing of his wife, so he left his sister in charge of his newborn so he could become a cowboy. Some readers were appalled that Roosevelt left his child in the care of his sister, other readers thought his way of dealing with the death of his wife was to leave everything behind and go out west.
Another point that was brought up was that Roosevelt protected and conserved forests, landmarks, and wildlife during his presidency, but killed so many animals himself. He was a hunter and sportsman since he was a child and by his own accounts killed hundreds of birds on hunting trips as well as bears, deer, bison, and tigers.
Some readers mentioned that they would have liked to know more about how the servants lived and more about their roles in the household. Although the Roosevelts had servants and traveled with them, there was little mention of them in this biography.
Overall, most readers enjoyed learning about Roosevelt’s early life and his family history. Mornings on Horseback described Roosevelt as a man who was always doing something, as he hated to be bored. The biography gave an extensive look at Roosevelt’s life before he became president and the events that helped mold who he became.
Reviews of the book:
From The New York Times
From Kirkus Reviews
Interviews with the author:
Archive of Studs Terkel interview
The Paris Review
Island of Vice by Richard Zachs
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
Next month the Brown Baggers will meet on Thursday, May 18th at 12pm and will be discussing Old Filth by Jane Gardam.