Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough

Above is my breakfast this morning.  In the words of that great philosopher the Cookie Monster:

C is for cookie and that's good enough for me.

Today my writing is accompanied by all three movements of Pour le Piano by Claude Debussy performed by Gina Bachauer.

Years ago, the first time I moved to New Jersey, I was facing some hard financial times so my mother came up to stay with me and watch my toddler son while I worked.  Tuesdays were my day off so my mother, one of the most organized people I know, mapped out all of New York City and each week we would go and explore some part of the city.

One Tuesday it was the Roosevelt house.  Not only was it a fascinating tour but the information provided about our 26th President provoked an interest in that has lasted me the rest of my life.  I have read Roosevelt's own writings and have a couple of other biographies lined up after this one.

Mornings on HorsebackMornings on Horseback by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you're looking for a book describing Teddy Roosevelt's time in office this is not it. Lion in the White House by Aida Donald or Roosevelt's own autobiography would be where to start.

McCullough brings us to the brink of Roosevelt's political career and aside from a small afterward informing us of how all the Roosevelt children turned out, there he ends.

The book is still rich with information. Starting with Theodore Roosevelt, Sr, we get a solid and colorful background in which Teddy Jr grew up, as well as what sort of child he was which gives us insight into the sort of man he developed into.

Theodore Sr. was an intensely honorable and devout man. A strong Christian and the adoring and adored father of his children. A good third of the book narrates the close relationship Theodore Sr. had with all of his children.

He married a Southern woman, Mittie, the decade prior to the Civil War. Mittie was the quintessential Southern woman. Gorgeous, charming, flirtatious but completely in control of her destiny. Theodore must have fallen hard, even besotted. Their letters are filled with ardor on his part and teasing banter on hers.

They married and she, her sister, and her mother moved up to New York to live in the Roosevelt mansion. This must have been hard in many ways for the Southern ladies, New York being a drastically different culture than their dear Georgia. But it was also a blessing because a few years later, when the War broke out, they did not suffer the fate of the rest of their family and friends. Their home and all they knew was destroyed. Mittie's mother prayed she'd rather die than see the fall of Richmond. Her prayer was answered and she did die a year after the war started.

What Mittie's feelings were on the matter, we don't know because it seems to have been the culture at the time that one's feelings were not for exhibition. We see this later in her son, Teddy Jr, after the death of his first wife. He simply never speaks of her, not even mentioning her in his autobiography, yet from the records we know he loved her extremely.

The Roosevelts' lives would probably be deemed distasteful to modern sensibilities. They were unapologetically rich and lived a lavish lifestyle. Ironically, not because many people don't live that way now, in fact with our modern conveniences, the average person lives a more comfortable life than the richest person in the 19th century, but today it's gauche to be in favor of wealth, even if we enjoy it.

Teddy Roosevelt was sickly and an asthmatic. The Roosevelts traveled all over the world, taking an entire year to visit everything from Europe to India. This influenced Teddy in many ways and years later, as a grown man, he sought to replicate those experiences by returning to India and also living out west as a rancher.

Before that we read about his experiences at Harvard, and the impression he made on his fellow students. He was deemed a strange, awkward character with a high pitched voice, but he soon commanded their respect and he never lacked in confidence. Growing up in the Roosevelt household no doubt instilled a strong sense of self-worth.

One thing I must confess that I found disturbing was the utter delight in killing animals. Teddy describes with relish all the huge and powerful animals he hunted and conquered. I know there was a time when that was fashionable but I personally abhor killing for sport.

We also get to know Teddy's siblings. Corinne, the youngest, smart, devoted sister and the only one to live long enough to see another Roosevelt in office.

Elliot, the father of Eleanor Roosevelt, a tragic figure whose uncontrolled drinking put him into an early grave.

And the one Teddy was closest to, Bamie. Bamie had different physical handicaps, one being a curved spine. Her father treated her with the utmost care, usually carrying her everywhere and making sure she was deprived of nothing. Theirs was a special, close relationship.

And despite her physical challenges she turned out to be the most brilliant of them all, advising Teddy on everything from personal relationships to political directions. And I was glad to see that she did finally marry and marry happily, especially since everyone at the time had consigned her to "Old Maid" status. I would very much like to find a biography of this fascinating woman.

In conclusion,

If anything struck me the most it was the strong commitment and tender devotion Theodore Sr had towards his family.

The next thing would be the political shenanigans of the late 19th century and how Theodore Sr. did his utmost to eradicate the political corruption in New York and how this mantle was taken on by his son after the father's untimely and unexpected death while he was still a young man.

The courage both Theodores had in striving to remove the entrenched corruption and cronyism in the political arena of their time, how they fought against the majority of politicians, powerful crime bosses and indifference by the middle and upper classes toward the plight of the exploited lower classes is reminiscent of William Wilberforce's fight against slavery.

 I found this book to be an inspiring account of one of my favorite presidents.

View all my reviews


  1. Fine review! When I read the book, I'm not sure I joined the Teddy Roosevelt fan club, but I renewed my membership in the David McCullough fan club; McCullough, IMHO, is the best writer of narrative histories.

    1. Thanks, Tim. I agree with you re: McCullough. So would my parents. We've all read another biography by a different author and it simply wasn't as informative or interesting.

    2. Sharon, I recommend all of McCullough's other books.

    3. So far I've read The Greater Journey and this one. I have on my TBR pile Truman, John Adams,1776 and the Great Bridge. I also want to read the Wright Brothers; my mother highly recommends that and the Truman biography. But yes; I would love to read all of his books.

  2. Dynamite review... TR is favorite character; his sense of honor and morality are so rare in this money grubbing world.. I read a book not too long ago that described him exploring South America... He got sick, almost died and had to be evacuated pdq...
    Nice music... Who's your favorite pianist? Wanda landowska I thought was pretty good...

    1. Hi Mudpuddle, That's why I like Teddy too. He boldly stood up to the bullies. I think they mention the South American incident you talk of, or the other biographer did, I'm not sure since I've since read another bio of him.

      Landowska was a harpsichordist and is legendary. She played it up, too: coming on stage in a cape and holding a candle.
      For me, I love Mitsuko Uchida for Mozart and Debussy; Ivo Pogerelich is also a favorite; Martha Argerich; Arthur Rubenstein; Alfred Brendel...quite a few actually.

      Hope the renovating's going along smoothly and quickly!

    2. Oh, ou told me that once already... Leaky brain symptoms in the oldster..
      Headed home tomorrow hopefully the work will be finished and all the associated bad stuff will be gone...

    3. Associated bad stuff? That doesn't sound good. Hope it will be all gone when you arrive.

      Josh and I are debating whether we should repaint cabinets, replace counters and tile the kitchen floor ourselves or put the money out and have someone gut the place and do it for us.

    4. Formaldehyde, mainly... And paint fumes... I'm sensitive to that kind thing as a result of overexposure in my former working life...

    5. Formaldehyde? Good heavens! I wonder how that got in your house. I certainly hope it is all gone!

    6. Formaldehyde is what plywood and many other glued products are made of/with... new construction is rife with health harming perils...

    7. Yeesh, that's not good. They need to change the way the make stuff.

  3. Great review Sharon.

    I want to read this. I have visited both The Roosevelt House in New York City as well as Sagamore Hill which is not too far from where I live on Long Island. Teddy Roosevelt seemed to be a fascinating character. I want to know more about him. Thus I would also like to read Lion in the White House. I also think that Roosevelt was an good person though I also find the hunting disturbing.

    I also like David McCullough as a writer. I recommend his John Adams biography. I thought that 1776 was good but a little unfocused.

    1. Thanks, Brian. I miss living in the northeast because it has so much old history (plus a lot more to do and see). I never visited Long Island, other than Brooklyn. I wish I had taken a drive through there once.

      I have John Adams by McCullough. I just need to read it.

      I have some sort of special edition of 1776. It includes fascimilis of letters and maps. I got it for my son to learn about American History.

      I suppose it was another time but it really bothers me to read about Roosevelt's and Hemingway's hunting. To kill such big beautiful animals disturbs me deeply.

      Take care!

  4. I'm adding this to my reading list, too, sounds fascinating and McCullough is such a good writer. Two months ago I visited the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, NY--wonderful history and tour. You may already have seen the John Adams TV Miniseries (available through most libraries). I really enjoyed the whole program and my favorite part was the extended interview with McCullough which is included in the special features, what a wise interesting man. Your choice of piano music and cozy breakfast is perfecto!

    1. Hi Marcia! Thanks so much. I have not seen the miniseries although I do have his bio on John Adams. It's in line to read. I think I may read his Truman next. I will need to find the miniseries on Amazon or youtube. Have a great weekend!

  5. I want to read this. nice post.

    1. Thanks, sathwika! I hope you get to read it.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.