There have been a lot of caricatures and stereotypes of Theodore Roosevelt. For example, there is the impression given of a small man with a big voice in the popular 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace, where actor John Alexander puts a screwball comedy twist on Roosevelt by portraying him as a loud, aggressive, “take charge” kind of guy as in this scene. Then there is the Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs appears in a fake handlebar mustache and spectacles, waving a “big stick” around.
But Roosevelt was a complex man who had many talents and passions, and his Gilded Age persona (before he became president in 1901) gives us a glimpse at the extraordinary person he was. He was the ultimate Gilded Age hero who met with adversary using strength and eloquence. He threw himself into any endeavor and that included politics, ranching, writing, and war in the last quarter of the 19th century, all before he entered the White House
Roosevelt, though, was not one of these presidents that came from humble beginnings. In fact, he was born into a family much like the Alderdices, my wealthy San Francisco family in the Waxwood Series. He was born of privilege and ease and, in fact inherited a large sum of money as a young man upon his father’s death that allowed him to live in the lap of luxury the rest of his life. But, like many Gilded Agers, he pursued several careers to prove his worth as a man. Even as a child, he never let the “big boys” bully him. The infamous story of his passion for boxing came about when he was beat up by two older boys on a camping trip. Determined never to allow such a thing to happen again, he took up the “strenuous life,” involving himself in boxing, rowing, and hunting (among other athletic activities) and advocated for boys and men to take up vigorous exercise and competitive sports as a way of developing not only the muscles but the mind as well.
Roosevent’s pre-presidential career was shadowed by political aspirations but his interests were also taken up by other (decidedly masculine) pursuits. He was passionate about naval history and published several books on the subject (including a book on the role of the navy in the war of 1812). This knowledge served him well in 1896, when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a position that helped usher him into the famous role he played in America winning the Spanish-American War. He wrote other books on hunting (one of which is referenced in False Fathers, the second of the Waxwood Series), conservation, and ranching, many of which were published before he became president. He wrote about these things from experience, as in between his years as a rising political figure in the Gilded Age, he retired to a ranch in the Dakota Territory and lived the life of a cowboy. He also spent a time as police commissioner of New York, cleaning up the rather haphazard ways of law enforcement at that time.
I find it interesting that Roosevelt sought to make a name for himself in the very spheres which the Victorians deemed appropriate for the manly man (I talk about the concept of the separate spheres for men and women in the 19th century here). From politics to ranching to sports, he went full force into the areas that, at that time, were the true test of manhood. The emerging ideal of masculinity that was abut aggression, success, control, and cunning were largely created by him, both before and during his presidency.
In False Fathers, those same masculine ideals are what drive Jake in his journey toward figuring out who he is after his grandfather dies and he is left, at twenty-one, to shoulder the burden of not only his own coming-of-age, but of his responsibilities as the new family patriarch. The main father figure who guides him in the book, Harland Stevens, is a staunch supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and his manly way of life and quotes him often in the book.