Saturday, August 15, 2009

Theodore Roosevelt - New Yorker

Few people exemplify the vast energy and dazzling versatility of New York City as much as Theodore Roosevelt once did, the youngest man ever to rise to the Presidency and the 26th President of the United States. He was born in Manhattan on October 27, 1858, at 28 East 20th Street, between Broadway and Park Avenue, and lived there until he was 14 years of age and his family relocated to their resplendent custom-built mansion at 6 West 57th Street. Interestingly, Roosevelt is the only U.S. President born and raised in New York City.

TR was famously meek, dangerously asthmatic and thoroughly unathletic as a child, and only later built himself up through a self-imposed regimen of intense exercise and recreational boxing. But in those early days he was rarely idle, filling his days investigating the natural world, practicing his increasingly extensive taxidermy skills, writing academic papers about insects and, becoming, by his early teens, one of the nation’s leading authorities on ornithology. He was also an incredibly avid reader from a very early age and was soon consuming mountains of books, especially histories. His first book, about the Naval War of 1812, was issued to great acclaim just after he graduated from college in 1881 and he went on to write many other widely read works. In 1912, nearly four years after he stepped down from the Presidency of the United States and the same year he ran unsuccessfully as the standard bearer for the independent Bull Moose Party, he somehow found the time to preside as President over the American Historical Association.

Like New York, TR was noisy, arrogant, and in your face, while also being brilliant, daring, and passionate about a hundred different subjects. He believed in and led what he called “The Strenuous Life,” and as Douglas Brinkley is demonstrating so exhaustively in his new book The Wilderness Warrior, he was a great naturalist who did more to preserve the environment than any president before or since. Naturally, like New York, he was also full of contradictions. He extolled the nobility of the American Grizzly Bear, sang praises to his power and beauty, and yet wielded his beloved Winchester repeating rifle with glee, never hesitating to use it to obliterate any bear that came his way. He was deeply moved by Jacob Riis’s great tract How the other half lives on the New York’s urban poor and collaborated with Riis in passing legislation to eliminate the worst tenements, but he was also all too quick to denounce the lower classes for their savagery and debauchery. He read a book a day and was a world-class scholar in at least three different fields, but he was also na├»ve and sheltered about a dozen everyday routines. He was menacing and even belligerent when it came to conducting foreign policy as President, but in 1906 he won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Like New York and that other great New Yorker, Walt Whitman, he was large and he contained multitudes. His contradictions marked him as much as his accomplishments.

Today I am going to visit a recreation of his birthplace on East 20th Street. I will report here what I learn.

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