Tag Archives: TR

Book Review: A Bully Father: Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children

If you are at all familiar with me or this blog, you have figured out that I am a pretty big Theodore Roosevelt fan. Last year, our county library had their annual book sale, and I bought every biography on TR that I could find. I planned to start them in January as there were already some other books I was reading that needed to be finished. My original plan was to read a biography once a month, but unfortunately my Masters of Divinity quickly got in the way of my personal reading, and so, I just finished my first Roosevelt bio for the year.

I was so excited about reading A Bully Father: Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children. It was my first pick of the year, which I began on January 1. It was not quite what I expected. Let me point out what I enjoyed, then what I was not quite thrilled about, and then I will end on a high note.

First, if you aren’t familiar with the term “Bully,” it was something that Roosevelt used like we would use “awesome” or “fantastic,” so it doesn’t mean one who pushes others around or beats someone up. That being said. . . The actual biography in this book was not at all bad. Joan Paterson Kerr, who wrote the biographical essay (80 pages), did an excellent job writing the highlights of TR’s life. For anyone who isn’t too familiar with the 26th President, but doesn’t want to wade into the waters of a more well-known bio, like Edmund Morris’s trilogy, this would be the one I would recommend. My favorite story she told of the president was when Roosevelt went up into the attic to play with his children and their friends. One young boy turned out the lights and TR banged his head on a board. He chided the children and went down to clean the blood off his forehead. When he returned, he found the boy (Looker) who turned off the lights, stuffed into a trunk with the others sitting on it. Roosevelt could hear the fear from within the trunk and ordered the children off it. “‘Suddenly the lid opened,’ Looker recalled, “and TR looked down into my face. He was quick with his handkerchief, too, wiping my face, and almost as quick to say, “He’s broken out in a sweat! The moth-balls have got into his eyes, and may them water!” This he said, to explain his wiping away the tears which I thought was fine of him,'” (pp 79-80). I think that was fine of him as well.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the book is Roosevelt’s letters to his children. In all transparency, I have not read any of Roosevelt’s letters outside this book, however, I have read much that he has written. I was hoping for some sage, fatherly advice about life or decision-making. If that is what you are seeking then you won’t find it in these letters. However, if you are looking for something to humanize the “old lion” legend that is Teddy Roosevelt, this is the book you want.  He talks about various sports, finding or receiving new pets, the death of other pets, horse-back riding, and many, many other subjects. Since I was hoping for something different, I was quite disappointed in what I received. So reader beware; know what it is you want.

However, as I stated, I want to end on a high note, as Kerr did. At the end of the book, in the Epilogue, Ms. Kerr gave a one page bio sketch of each of TR’s children, mainly dealing with their adult life, and what they accomplished or how they died. While one could easily Google this information, I enjoyed Kerr’s quick summary. It closed out the book nicely.

All in all, the book was well-written, and quite interesting. I gave it three stars on good-reads. The book itself is 255 pages, not including the acknowledgements. Published by Random House in 1995, with the Foreward by the David McCullough, the biographical sketch would be recommended to a TR newbie, but the letters themselves may be too mundane for one who is not at least moderately interested in reading his own words. Again, I could find no sage advice; nothing to live by, thus nothing like what one may come to expect from Roosevelt. Thus, I would recommend checking out the book from a library or Overdrive, but reading only the bio sketch of both the President at the beginning and the children at the end.

Quotes from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena”

Today is the 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s death.  On January 6, 1919 Theodore Roosevelt, resting from a short hospital stay for inflammatory rheumatism, passed due to a pulmonary embolism (blood clot to the lung).  “Man in the Arena” is arguably Theodore Roosevelt’s most famous and beloved of speeches (The Strenuous Life, being the other one). If you get a chance to read it, you should. It is too long a speech to put fully on this post, so I am putting some of my favorite quotes below.  I am sure you will understand why it is so beloved by the time you finish reading these selections.

The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher. . .

There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities – all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of
weakness. . .

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does
actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. . .

Self restraint, self mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution – these are the qualities which mark a masterful people. Without them no people can control itself, or save itself from being controlled from the outside. . .

In short, the good citizen in a republic must realize that the ought to possess two sets of qualities, and that neither avails without the other. He must have those qualities which make for efficiency; and that he also must have those qualities which direct the efficiency into channels for the public good. He is useless if he is inefficient. There is nothing to be done with that type
of citizen of whom all that can be said is that he is harmless. Virtue which is dependant upon a sluggish circulation is not impressive. There is little place in active life for the timid good man. The man who is saved by weakness from robust wickedness is likewise rendered immune from robuster virtues. The good citizen in a republic must first of all be able to hold his own. He is no good citizen unless he has the ability which will make him work hard and which at need will make him fight hard. The good citizen is not a good citizen unless he is an efficient citizen.

But if a man’s efficiency is not guided and regulated by a moral sense, then the more efficient he is the worse he is, the more dangerous to the body politic. Courage, intellect, all the masterful qualities, serve but to make a man more evil if they are merely used for that man’s own advancement, with brutal indifference to the rights of others. It speaks ill for the community if the community worships these qualities and treats their possessors as heroes regardless of whether the qualities are used rightly or wrongly. It makes no difference as to the precise way in which this sinister efficiency is shown. It makes no difference whether such a man’s force and ability betray themselves in a career of money-maker or politician, soldier or orator, journalist or popular leader. If the man works for evil, then the more successful he is the more he should be despised and condemned by all upright and far-seeing men. To judge a man merely by success is an abhorrent wrong; and if the people at large habitually so judge men, if they grow to condone wickedness because the wicked man triumphs, they show their inability to understand that in the last analysis free institutions rest upon the character of citizenship, and that by such admiration of evil they prove themselves unfit for liberty.

You can find the entire speech here: Man in the Arena