Roger L. Di Silvestro's Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands is a terrific piece of the great man's biography, but there's a paradox at its core. The land Roosevelt visited in the 1880s was still a virtual blank in American culture. Its myth was already building, however, and Roosevelt's tales would burnish it, so that what today might seem like clichéd adventures in part created the legends. And they're all true—as Di Silvestro meticulously demonstrates.
Teddy was the scion of an old and affluent New York family. Yet he was a small, sickly child. Getting into Harvard was less a challenge for him than building up his body. He did it, though, through force of will and endless hours of exercise—and he learned to box, and shoot, and hunt, setting him on a course for "the strenuous life" he extolled ever after. He wasn't truly good at most of these things, as he was quick to admit, but that wasn't the point. It was doing them at all that mattered to him, and eventually, to millions of Americans. He was the man of letters and action combined, a Hemingway long before there was one.
In 1881, when he was 22, Roosevelt was elected to the New York State legislature. The next year he published his first book, a history. He had a promising future—and then, in 1884, his mother and his young wife died on the same day. Teddy got on a train in New York and, five days later, was in the Dakota Territory. He was sure he would never be happy again and thought he might as well personally buttress his investment in the cattle business and drown his sorrows as a cowboy. He started off running several hundred head of cattle in Medora, just a few miles east of the Montana line.
Roosevelt arrived "decked out in all the cowboy splendor that New York City haberdashers could conceive," Di Silvestro writes. "He carried ivory-handled six-shooters, his initials carved on one side of the handle and the head of a bison on the other... He wore silver spurs also emblazoned with his initials, and he strapped them to alligator boots; his belt flashed with a silver buckle engraved with the head of a grizzly, his gun belt and holster were tooled, his Colt revolver was engraved with rich scrollwork and plated in silver and gold; he carried a bowie knife, a species of weapon with a good western pedigree...but his was custom-made at Tiffany's."
Topping it all off were the spectacles that the badly nearsighted Teddy needed, which were far less common than they are today. And that inevitably led to trouble. Roosevelt stopped one night at Nolan's Hotel in Mingusville, Montana. He'd no sooner stepped inside than he came up against a large, drunken bully with a six-shooter in each hand who ordered "Four Eyes" to buy drinks for everyone in the bar. Roosevelt tried to ignore him, but, he wrote, "The fact that I wore glasses, together with my evident desire to avoid a fight, apparently gave him the impression—a mistaken one—that I would not resent an injury." So Roosevelt put his Harvard boxing lessons to use and decked the man. His reputation in the Badlands was secured.
Besides his investment, which eventually foundered, Roosevelt was in the West to hunt big game. He especially wanted a buffalo head to adorn the wall of his new house on Long Island. He would become the father of the conservation movement in the U.S., but in 1883, with buffalo on the verge of extinction, Roosevelt finally killed a big bull in eastern Montana. "I never saw any more buffalo after that," his guide recalled. "They disappeared from the range."
More than escapades and derring-do, the West seems to have been the place that gave Roosevelt the common touch that would serve him so well in the White House. Unlike the urban, East Coast world he'd known, the West didn't value lineage and connections. If a man could ride and rope and shoot, and shoulder his share of misery, he was in. For the rest of Teddy's crowded life, this paragon of manliness was quick to credit his time in the West with making him a man.
This is exciting history, of Roosevelt and the West, limited only by its scope. It's virtually impossible to read about Roosevelt and not want to know more. We're lucky to have so many fine studies of him, such as the splendid three-volume biography by Edmund Morris, the third volume of which was just published last year, as well as lively studies that break off pieces of his career, as Candice Millard did in her eminently readable River of Doubt and as Di Silvestro has done here. It's an important part of an important life, for the Badlands, as Di Silvestro writes, "had served as a crucible for Theodore Roosevelt, and what it had made of him was about to emerge on the national stage."