on November 29, 2010
I am a lover of Theodore Roosevelt and looked forward to this book when it was first announced. I have had it since it was initially released in hardcover and it has taken until now to finish it. Now for me to have that much trouble in completing a book on Roosevelt says something.
I had bought the book at a time when I was attempting to find a direction in my life (cue violins...) and I was interested in seeing how Roosevelt utilized his love of nature and science in his daily life. Now there are good chunks of the beginning of this book that show how nature and evolution influenced his way of thinking and I was happy with it. I enjoyed learning about the Boone and Crockett Club or the Bronx Zoo and his great influence on the formation of those organziations. By the time it has gotten up to when he was in positions of power, the Governorship of New York and his Presidency I feel the book loses it's direction, by almost placing too much emphasis on his nature stewardship over everything else. Others have hit on factual errors and honestly I don't pick up on those as much as others - on military facts yeah, but that is mostly because of that is my interest. Here it is that I have trouble picking up on how the naturalist in him helped or hindered the politician. To use a cliche, it may be because of having trouble seeing the forest thru the trees. It seems to me that there is just so much information it is difficult to see what is the wheat and what is just chaff (hey two cliches in two sentances!). The emphasis problem may also be shown in the fact that post-Presidency is not even covered in the over 800 pages of text. This should have been the place to show how his love of nature and science helped him deal with life as an former President, the book ends with Taft's innaguration in March of 1909. That may be what I'll have to find in Morris' 'Colonel Roosevelt' or Millard's 'River of Doubt', how Roosevelt used his African safari and later the Amazon expedition to deal with life outside of office.
All in all an intermittently interesting but ultimately unsatisfying book. I have read other negaitive reviews and some have mentioned that it needs editing down and I agree with that. As a 400-500 page book with better emphasis on the overall impact of the naturalist impulse on his administration and on the rest of the country may have been of more use. The final judgement of the naturalist side of Theodore Roosevelt is to what extent he was able to bring conservationism to the forefront of American dialogue via his use of the Bully Pulpit in the years after he left office. Considering the environmental movement has only really achieved mainstream status nearly a century after the Roosevelt Administration may show the true extent of the impact (however great)of his naturalist side on shaping the national debate at the time.
on October 31, 2009
I have been truly inspired by this book - inspired by the grandeur of this country, inspired by the potential of good governance, inspired to read more on the topic of early conservationists and inspired to visit and revisit our national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and forests. Unfortunately, this brilliant book is marred by numerous typos and other errors. Some are errors of fact, e.g.: erroneous birth dates for Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin; there are misspellings, sentences missing words and just plain sloppiness (e.g.: listing the state of Montana twice in one sentence which lists several states). I hope this book will be edited before it goes to its next printing. Other than that, I highly recommend this book.
on April 22, 2011
This is a great topic and it could have been a good book, but sadly Douglas Brinkley is simply not up to the challenge. I apologize for this long review, but there is so much wrong with this book that I feel I must do my best to warn others.
Wilderness Warrior is bloated with far too much detail, much of it not terribly relevant. To make matters worse, Brinkley frequently gets these details wrong. It would take a book of its own to present the hundreds of factual errors Brinkley makes. Other critical reviews here have done a good job of providing examples; they're all true, and I could add many more besides. So unfortunately these are not isolated errors, but rather the tip of a very large iceberg. Brinkley is a full professor of history, not an amateur, so he has no excuse for such an extensive pattern of error.
Errors aside, what does this book have to offer the reader? Despite its bulk, really not much. There is almost nothing particularly new here. Really, does anyone who would be motivated to read this book not already know that TR was a great presidential conservationist? Yes, like you I wanted to know more about that aspect of TR, and that's what made me want to read this book. But Brinkley simply collects "facts" like a magpie, without any selectivity. They're all in here, probably every little factoid his research assistants dug up, even if a significant percentage are inaccurate. But that's not the worst of it. That would be Brinkley's inability make meaning out of facts. Or, in plain English, Brinkley just doesn't really know what he's talking about whenever he strays from what other TR biographers have already said about the man.
The writing is consistently dull. When he tries to liven it up, Brinkley often resorts to anachronistic language ("homeboys", "go global") that sticks out painfully and disrupts the flow of the writing, as well as sounding silly. Mostly, this is due Brinkley's lack of stylistic skill, but it is also attributable to the book's lack of an argument or thesis. For example Brinkley passes up the obvious opportunity to explore any of TR's struggles with his many opponents in much detail. They are never more than cardboard cutout villains, rarely even individually named, and in Brinkley's hands they only appear in the book so TR can knock them down with a presidential decree and a resounding "bully!", followed by another lengthy list of sub-species saved. If TR is to be presented to us as a "warrior" for nature protection then it would have been incredibly interesting to know more about his enemies, their motivations, and TR's battles with them. Setting aside the intellectual value of engaging more deeply with this aspect of the TR story, it would also have made the book much less boring than it needed to be by introducing some badly-needed tension to the story. By the way, in contrast, TR's conservation allies, even incredibly minor ones, are profiled in excruciatingly detailed mini-biographies that go on forever.
Another problem is the author's choice to abruptly end the book with the close of TR's presidency. Ten years of the still-youthful TR's conservation activity as an influential ex-president is condensed into a couple of pages. This is quite a failure of imagination in Brinkley's conception of what the book should do. Finally, there is no substantive conclusion telling the reader what Brinkley thinks we should learn from the nearly one thousand pages we have just read. It's as if the author, no longer caring how it ended, simply stopped writing, and 1908 was as good a time as any to end the story.
Once I was finished with it, I was so struck by this book's awfulness that I went in search of published reviews to see how it had been received. To my surprise, newspaper book reviewers loved it and the New York Times even made it a Notable Book of the year. This reveals a shocking lack of discernment on the part of America's journalistic class. The lack of attention from more qualified academic reviewers, however, is telling. I suspect that more they are taking their mother's advice and not saying anything, since they found it hard to say anything nice.
I did, however, find an exception in an excellent piece in the New York Sun by historian Wilfred McCay of the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. He was critiquing Brinkley's recent book about Hurricane Katrina but also took the opportunity to make some general remarks about Brinkley's output and scholarship which can be applied with perfect accuracy to Wilderness Warrior, and they are well worth quoting here by way of closing:
"[Brinkley's] writings have [these] things in common. First and foremost is their relentless mediocrity. I cannot think of a historian or public intellectual who has managed to make himself so prominent in American public life without having put forward a single memorable idea, a single original analysis, or a single lapidary phrase -- let alone without publishing a book that has had any discernable impact... Second is their sloppiness, partly an inevitable product of the haste in their composition, and partly, one suspects, of a mind that becomes easily bored by careful, close analysis... you would never want to rely on his books as sources of accurate detail... All of this would be forgivable if Mr. Brinkley had written a book that was lively and evocative. But [it] just goes on and on and on, a veritable Mississippi of sludgy, sophomoric, rebarbative prose, with gimmicky human-interest stories, transcriptions of press releases, gratuitous quotations, and potted history. This author may feel the gravity of his subject, but he does not manage to convey it."
on February 6, 2011
I enjoyed Brinkley's Wilderness Warrior, but I did not love it. In fact, sometimes reading it struck me as a chore. I am a huge TR fan, and love hiking, running, and hunting in the great outdoors. My wife and I have made trips just to visit TR related sites, so I figured this would be the book for me. While it had some fascinating insights, and detours (the parts about the game wardens in Florida risking and losing their lives to defend the bird sanctuaries was particularly interesting), it could have used significant editing. There are only so many times a reader wants to have a list of how many warblers or sparrows President Roosevelt saw on a particular day, or esoteric minutia of deviations among species members, some of this could have been summarized. Much of the beginning on his childhood was long (though the parts on his uncle Robert shed interesting insights on TR himself), but then there was nothing about his time after the Presidency! How can we not consider his trips in Africa and Latin America in a book on his life as the wilderness warrior? I also disliked how during the sections on his presidency it did not appear to be chronological but instead seemed divided by topic, such as Bird Conservation, or National Monuments). Some mention of at least the issues he was dealing with contemporaneously would also have been useful (e.g. no mention of stand-offs with the Kaiser, trust-busting, food safety regulation, etc.). In conclusion, I do not want to make it appear that I actively disliked the book, but want it to be clear that it not an easy read, nor was it as good as it likely could have been.
on January 29, 2012
Brinkley's writing was so atrocious that I couldn't bear to read past the preface. I now regret not having taken advantage of the opportunity Amazon offers to read a few pages of a book before buying it. If I had, I certainly wouldn't have wasted my money. I've recently read several other books about TR, including Edmund Morris's very good two-volume biography, Timothy Egan's excellent "The Big Burn'", and Candice Millard's thoroughly enjoyable "The River of Doubt." All three of those authors know how to write; Brinkley clearly does not. His prose reads like something produced by a mediocre college sophomore.
Perhaps my reaction was colored by having just finished Daniel Okrent's highly entertaining and informative "Last Call-The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," which is popular history at its best. Brinkley may have a story to tell, but it was obvious from the preface that he doesn't know how to tell it, and that his editor couldn't be bothered to put the manuscript into publishable form.
Theodore Roosevelt's life was packed so full with so many interests it's easy for an author to focus on one aspect of it rather than writing a sprawling biography. Brinkley opts to focus on Teddy the conservationist and environmentalist for "The Wilderness Warrior" and there is no shortage of material to draw from as Roosevelt was drawn to nature from the time he was a child. The subject of Roosevelt's interest in nature has been touched on in other sprawling biographies by Nathan Miller, Edmund Morris and others, but few have focused as specifically on Roosevelt's environmentalism quite as well or as in-depth as Brinkley does here. Like many Victorians, Roosevelt was typically eclectic, collecting and preserving specimens of a wide variety of animals which he prominently displayed in his homes, jokingly calling it the "Roosevelt Museum of Natural History." He also kept a wide variety of unusual pets and this interest in the biodiversity of the environment around him was likely spurred by what he was reading as much as by the rapidly changing world around him. But that eclectic interest changed to serious ambition when Roosevelt ventured to the Dakotas in the late 1880s.
There is a tendency to think that Roosevelt's interest in conservationism lay dormant from his time in the Dakotas until he became President, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth; which ultimately is part of why Brinkley wrote this book. Rather than compartmentalizing conservationism, it was an essential part of Roosevelt's core being and beliefs, something Brinkley makes quite clear. Freed of having to tell the whole story of Roosevelt's life Brinkley is able to focus on how conservationism was always near and dear to Roosevelt's heart and informed much of his life. And while Roosevelt's early interest in nature and travels to the Dakotas have been told countless times before, there is a freshness here that is found in Brinkley's other books. Brinkley is able to explore Roosevelt's fascination with nature in far greater detail than other authors would have dared that allows readers to see Roosevelt as though for the first time. Brinkley is also freed to focus on Roosevelt's activism once he becomes President without having to wade into covering all the other aspects of his presidency. Perhaps the strangest part is that Brinkley largely ends with Roosevelt's presidency. This is so strange especially since Roosevelt's ill-fated trip down the Amazon would have been a rather fitting coda for this story. Perhaps Brinkley felt "River of Doubt" covered that sufficiently and wanted Roosevelt to go out on a high note. It certainly doesn't detract from the book and it's rare that I would ever say 800+ pages left me wanting more, but that is indeed the case here. "The Wilderness Warrior" reads like the adventure that it is. There is more detail crammed in here then I ever imagined and yet it is one of the best biographies on Roosevelt I've ever read, despite narrowly focusing on one aspect of his very exciting and action packed life. If anything it will make readers wish for another environmentalist like Theodore Roosevelt to come along; what we've had since then have by and large been pale imitators.
on October 26, 2009
This book reads like a master's thesis from a third-rate college - cut and paste with little regard for "facts" drawn from secondary sources. To give two examples:
page 62: "It was also exciting that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln ... had both been on February 22, 1803". Wrong. They were both born on February 12, 1809.
page 135: "The outlaw Jesse James had launched his career as a notorious bank robber in 1876, just over 200 miles down the road in Northfield, Minnesota". Wrong. Jesse James was active as a bank robber in the period 1866-1876 (named as an "outlaw" in 1869) and went into temporary retirement AFTER the ill-fated Northfield robbery.
Frankly, it's hard to trust anything as "fact" in this overly long tome.
on September 6, 2009
To help us know where we are going, we must know from where we have come. Not only has Brinkley written a book on Roosevelt's deep interest in the environment, he has captured the tenor of our times -- the environmental movement that is happening today. We can tackle issues like renewable energy, oil exploration, climate change, with a firm understanding about the birth of the American conservation movement.
In a word, this book is masterful. It is an epic, yes, epic collection of detailed stories, vignettes, anecdotes that are veritable mosaic on Roosevelt's life. He deconstructs Teddy the myth and refashions him as a compassionate, daring, and bewildering person. Brinkley captured my attention in the opening passage. The closest thing to a page turner that I've come across in quite a while.