A Review of River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

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I’ll admit I feel a little scatterbrained at the moment. This is why they say you should not check your email until after noon! I received some good news – an academic journal accepted one of my dissertation chapters for publication. As this will be my first ever peer review publication (after only two rejections and one revise and resubmit), I am very, very happy – and distracted – but mostly happy. I worked on my revise and resubmit edits after completing my dissertation and I was burnt out on Rousseau while working on them. I actually have not returned to a single word of Rousseau since I resubmitted. I think the break has been good and I’m going to continue on with it, even if I do miss my citizen of Geneva a bit.

Anyway – I recently finished reading The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.  I may be taking a break from Rousseau, but I always seem to end up back in the state of nature. As might be suggested from the title, this book on TR reflects not on his presidential or political career, but on his journey on the Rio da Duvida —  the River of Doubt – which later became known as the Rio Roosevelt. She suggests that this is a response to his defeat as the Progressive Party candidate in 1912 as leader of the Bull Moose Party, but moreover a continuation of the “strenuous life” he had been living ever since he decided as a youth to “make his body” in response to his asthma.

What I know of TR has more to do with his political thought and less to do with his biographic life, but he has been a president who has always intrigued me. Frankly, it is hard to imagine a modern president today (whether a Clinton, Bush, Obama, or Trump) taking a life-threatening journey in uncharted Amazon territory to travel down a seemingly unknowable river. Politics aside, I cannot help but be impressed by TR’s rejection of the comfortable life post-presidency. Millard portrays this side of Roosevelt well. She describes him as not a man without fear, but as a man fear cannot control.

But it is not just TR that Millard portrays with interest. Each of the men portrayed are different characters – from TR’s son Kermit to the Brazilian native protector Rondon. But what is really interesting is the role of the Amazon itself. I don’t love it when nature is personified, but in this case (having spent so much time with Rousseau) it was a nice contrast to the idea of beneficent nature. TR describes this idea as: “The very pathetic myth of ‘beneficent nature,’ could not deceive even the least wise being if he once saw for himself the iron cruelty of life in the tropics.” If the book is a battle for preservation, from the explorers, the natives, the rainforest itself has its own stake in the prize – and it provides many obstacles from candiru, snakes, malaria, insects, piranha to the dearth of anything to eat. In the Amazon, nature is the opposite of generous.

One of the things I also appreciated about the book is that Millard seems set on presenting the story as it happened. Though she does psychologize TR a bit, she does not really create historical villains out of anybody. Rondon – the Brazilian explorer —  is clearly the most humane, insofar as he has his policy of peace never shooting at native Amazons, even out of self-preservation, and later, his creation of the Indian Protection Bureau in Brazil. But in this way, he is the most tragic. His work to create telegraph lines through the Amazon rainforest resulted in the continued destruction of Amazon natives. But Millard never takes the time to attack any of these men for their “backwards” ideas and I appreciated that. I just wanted to know the story, not a confession of their historical sins.

Overall, the book is a quick and easy read. It does not have a lot about TR’s political leanings (although you should know South America and TR are not best buds), but I think it does give several interesting glimpses into his character. I’m not a Progressive, but as I said above, I can’t help but admire TR. He is so different than what we have today. It is hard to imagine us having a president today with such a wide breadth of knowledge, interests, and daring. If ever there was a man willing to be in the arena, he was it, even when that arena was the Amazon rain forest and not in civilization.

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