Historian captures TR's role as an environmental warrior
Theodore Roosevelt’s passion for the rugged outdoor life is widely known. But it remained for historian Douglas Brinkley to document—virtually on a week-by-week basis—the extent to which TR transformed his enthusiasm for nature into America’s gain and glory. The results of Brinkley’s exhaustive research reverberate through The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, a whopping (almost 1,000-page) examination of Roosevelt’s fight to save America’s unique natural spaces.
Elevated to the presidency in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley, Roosevelt used the power of his office not simply to advocate the conservation of natural resources but also to impose sweeping environmental measures by fiat. “In seven years and sixty-nine days [as president],” Brinkley writes, “Roosevelt . . . saved more than 240 million acres of American wilderness.”
In one sense, Brinkley has been preparing to write this book for most of his life. “My mother and father were high school teachers” in Perrysburg, Ohio, he tells BookPage from his office in Houston, where he is professor of history at Rice University. “We had a 24-foot Coachman trailer, and we would visit presidential sites and national parks. I had been to Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s home, when I was a boy, and I was enamored by the study and the library and the big-game trophies. Then we would visit a lot of these parks—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, the Petrified Forest and other places—I write about [here].
“But what really galvanized this book for me was in 1992 I brought a lot of students [from Hofstra University] on a program I called The Majic Bus. They earned college credits living on the road, visiting presidential sites and national parks like my family vacation. I came upon the town of Medora, North Dakota, where TR spent his Badlands days, and I was transfixed by this quaint, cowboy-like hamlet. I started at that point micro-looking at TR and conservation as a topic.”
Brinkley says he thinks the subject of land use—the question of what to do with the West—was the “big issue” between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I. He plans to follow The Wilderness Warrior with two more related volumes that will chronicle the American environmental movement through the administration of President Clinton.
“We’ve created this extraordinary system of wildlife refuges, parks and forests,” says Brinkley, “and we’ve pioneered in saving endangered species and rehabilitating lakes and rivers. We’ve done a lot of things right. In many ways, the conservation story is a triumphal American story, but it’s also filled with warnings about the things we’re not doing properly now.”
Roosevelt left a literary trail Brinkley found easy to follow. In addition to his 30 or so books, most of which dealt with nature, TR wrote an estimated 150,000 letters that capsulated his thoughts and travels. His journeys and utterances were also “good copy” at the time for America’s increasingly influential daily newspapers.
“Roosevelt’s great talent was not manipulating Congress, which he looked on with a fair amount of disdain,” Brinkley says. “He was a genius at manipulating the media. He loved reporters. He was a writer himself and a voracious reader. So any new book by a journalist that came out, he read it. He also read all the newspapers and periodicals of his day and knew the reporters by name. He won over a number of [news] people to the conservation movement.”
Politically, Roosevelt was hard to pin down. He was a rabid America-firster, a believer in westward expansion and in the “civilizing” or displacement of Indians. Yet he steadfastly thwarted the capitalists who sought to exploit the nation’s resources for private advantage. He gleefully slaughtered game animals, even as he fought to protect them and their habitats for posterity.
“The truth is that hunters and fishermen were the first environmentalists in the United States,” Brinkley asserts, noting that Roosevelt shipped many of his kills to scientists to study and to taxidermists to mount. “Before DNA testing or banding of animals,” Brinkley continues, “taxidermy was the way we learned about the natural world.”
As Brinkley sees it, Roosevelt “sold environmentalism by being a cowboy/hunter. That was his great contribution. Without the persona of, ‘Look, I’m a cowboy, I ride on a horse, and I’ve hunted grizzly bear and black bear and elk and buffalo’ then he wouldn’t have had the credibility to say, ‘You know what? We should create a buffalo commons to save the buffalo.’ He was able to sell enough people on that because he wasn’t seen as an effete intellectual talking about biology. . . . He was one part Darwin and one part James Fenimore Cooper.”
In the course of his environmental campaigns, Roosevelt crossed paths—and sometimes swords—with such luminaries as novelist Owen Wister (who dedicated The Virginian to him), painter Frederic Remington (then a relative unknown whom TR would tap to illustrate some of his magazine articles), Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington (with whom Roosevelt dined at the White House, much to the chagrin of many prominent Southerners), Mark Twain (who opposed Roosevelt on the Spanish-American War and later derided him in print for his impulsiveness and bloodlust) Jack London (whose fiction Roosevelt attacked for biological inaccuracy) and folklorist John Lomax (for whom Roosevelt personally secured a grant to enable him to continue his seminal study of American cowboy songs).
Apart from its impressive scholarship, The Wilderness Warrior also has an appealing turn-of-the-20th century design. The illustrations are integrated into the text rather than displayed on separate pages, and each chapter is prefaced by a list of phrases that outline the topics covered within.
Brinkley applauds Roosevelt for his “bold, hubristic moves” to preserve the nation’s most arresting landscapes. “He was the only politician we had in the White House in that period who had a biological sense of the world, who understood the need for species survival and did something about it. . . . When you open up a Rand McNally map and look at all the green on the United States, you’re looking at TR’s America.”
Edward Morris writes from Nashville.