Study Guide

Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt The Strenuous Life

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The Strenuous Life

In February 1883, T.R.'s carefully reconstructed world came falling down again. On 14 February, just two days after giving birth to a baby girl named Alice Lee, Theodore's beloved wife suddenly passed away. Only a few hours earlier, across the hall in the very same house, his long-suffering mother Mittie had already died of a fever. And then, compounding his troubles, an intraparty fight at the Republican National Convention forced T.R. to step down from his office as state assemblyman. Over the course of a single season, T.R. lost his wife, his mother, and his public status. Just like that, almost overnight, his entire life fell apart.

It would be an understatement to say that T.R. was disoriented. He was completely flabbergasted. He had absolutely no idea what to do next. For the next three years, he did little more than mourn and purge. Expelled from his party and robbed of his family at the age of 25, T.R. did what unmoored young men had been doing for generations: he went West. It was the start of what was to be a recurring pattern in T.R.'s life. Until his health began to fail in the late 1910s, Roosevelt would respond to all his personal hardships in the same way: by finding some vigorous, manly adventure to go on, as he had first done with his father on the banks of the Nile. T.R. already owned a ranch in the Dakota Badlands, purchased while on earlier travels. When his East Coast life disintegrated, he commissioned the construction of a house at Oyster Bay in memory of his recently deceased wife, left his sister Bamie in charge of his infant daughter, and lit out for the territory to try his luck at cattle ranching. If muscular Christianity could cure society's ills, maybe it could cure his own ills too.

Teddy immersed himself in the culture of the West. Theodore Roosevelt scholar Kathleen Dalton estimates that T.R. spent between one-third and one-half of all his time over the next three years working on his ranch in Dakota. Although raising cattle was not especially profitable (a drought killed off most of the herd), it was therapeutic. Roosevelt cultivated his rugged masculinity by learning to rope and ride. He became inspired by the independence and virility of Westerners—a product, he thought, of their direct contact with nature. He believed that he had found, in the West, what it took to resist the damaging, feminizing effects of over-civilization. T.R. tried to spread news of his discovery back East through his writings. He published Hunting Trips of a Ranchman in 1885, and worked on a biography of Thomas Hart Benton, one of the great cheerleaders for America's westward expansion. He even became a writer of some repute.

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