When we think of Theodore Roosevelt the man (which is a very different thing from thinking of the president), we tend to think of him as just that: a man among men; a rough-and-tumble ranchman with a rifle at the ready and a mustache to put Tom Selleck to shame; a jaded old vet who even as president liked to be called “colonel” because that title meant more than “president” ever could. He is less often remembered as a deep thinker, and even less as a gifted writer.
Yet there is a peculiarly American genius that shines through Roosevelt’s writings — a genius intimately related to the kind of classical manhood that Roosevelt embodied, a genius whose constant subject is the relation of man to the world in which he lives.
Roosevelt, ever the naturalist, takes the land as his starting point, introducing man only as a detail in the landscape. The territory that Roosevelt describes in the opening lines of his first great hunting book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), is a classic picture of the American frontier. It is vast and wild and untamed and contains a beauty that cannot be distilled in words — though Roosevelt tried his damnedest, and came close:
It is a high, nearly treeless region, of light rainfall, crossed by streams which are sometimes rapid torrents and sometimes merely strings of shallow pools. In places it stretches out into deserts of alkali and sage brush, or into nearly level prairies of short grass, extending for many miles without a break; elsewhere there are rolling hills, sometimes of considerable height; and in other places the ground is rent and broken into the most fantastic shapes, partly by volcanic action and partly by the action of water in a dry climate.
But it doesn’t really exist.
It doesn’t exist now, of course; the land that Roosevelt lived on and wrote about a century and a half ago is now cut through with interstates, spattered with strip malls and strip clubs and all kinds of unseemly things that rob the landscape of its once-wild beauty. But it didn’t really exist then, either. Already in 1885, the American West had been won (The Winning of the West, incidentally, being another of Roosevelt’s great works, a four-volume history of the conquest of the frontier). Roosevelt and his neighbors were not exactly the primitive frontiersmen of folk legend, or even of the slightly less distant past. They lived on established ranches, and even the relative vagrancy of that ranch life was then being overturned by the cropping up of permanent farms on the great American plains. “The broad and boundless prairies have already been bounded,” he wrote, “and will soon be made narrow.”
Relating the pleasures of that ranch life, Roosevelt wrote excitedly of the many books he kept with him in the West. From the list of books and authors, and his brief thoughts on some of them, it is clear that he was an erudite and intelligent man. He even refers to his hunting partner as his “fidus Achates of the hunting field,” a reference to a faithful companion of Aeneas. It is doubtful that Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone carried their copies of Vergil with them through the wild frontier when it was still wild, and still a frontier. It seems clear, then, that Theodore Roosevelt was something other than a wild frontiersman.
And yet there was one thing about which he wrote with even more excitement than his library: his gun. Or rather, his guns — he kept quite a few, including the obligatory revolver of a ranch owner and multiple shotguns. But his pride and joy, his single most prized possession, was a .45–75 half-magazine, pistol-gripped Winchester Centennial Model rifle.
We tend to think of guns — their nature, their purpose, their dangers — as social. But they were not so for Roosevelt. To him, these guns were the line between man and beast, and more broadly between man and nature. He was of course not ignorant of the fact that one man might turn a gun against another; a decade after Hunting Trips of a Ranchman he would do just that in war and earn praise of heroism for it. But this was not, in Roosevelt’s carefully discerning eyes, what guns were for. For a thousand men to fling a thousand bullets scattershot at a thousand others in hopes of hitting one or two of them is something of an indignity to the grace and art of the weapon.
One man, deep as he can get in whatever is left of the wilderness, balanced carefully on horseback — Roosevelt’s favorite for hunting was a calm, strong animal named “Manitou” — or kneeling on the ground, buttstock pressed firm in the shoulder, one eye locked down the sights toward his mark, finger steady on the trigger — this is a man, and a gun, in full. There is none of the furor and frenzy of war. There is none of the rage or passion of crime. There is man, beast, and untamed earth; and there is the magnificent machine with which he brings both beast and earth under his dominion.
The gun is a remarkable tool for the fulfillment of the first divine command: Fill the earth and subdue it. This is especially true in America, where, as was impossible in long-settled Europe, modern men carrying guns pushed into land that had so far been inhabited only sparsely and sporadically by small and often nomadic tribes.
But the successful subjugation of the earth is always bittersweet, as Roosevelt recognized. Already in his day, men had conquered the continent from one ocean to the other, and even the broad, uncitied plains where brave men went to find something like wildness were being quickly eaten up by farmland. There is something in a man’s soul that wants to wrestle with the world, to point a Winchester at an elk grazing in the Badlands and claim by a bullet that little bit of the Badlands for his own. (Hilaire Belloc, another great thinker-naturalist, knew this too: “All men have an instinct for conflict: at least, all healthy men.” This is not the minor conflict of man against man, but the grand conflict of man against everything else.) The disappearance of the American wild often pushed Roosevelt and others to seek that conflict and that pleasure in foreign lands, warring with elephants in Africa and jaguars in the Amazon. And one cannot help but think that the national parks Roosevelt pushed so passionately were maybe, on some level, safeguards against this disappearance — that they were not just sanctuaries of natural beauty but little frontiers left unconquered.
The unchecked success of man in his war against the wild, just as it took something out of man and the land, did something to the souls of the animals too. Roosevelt observes that the cougars of his time are docile and timid, terrified of the rifle-bearing ranchman who had come to dominate their homelands. But it had not always been that way; it had not even been that way for long. He records an old family story:
Early in the present century one of my ancestral relatives, a Georgian, moved down to the wild and almost unknown country bordering on Florida. His plantation was surrounded by jungles in which all kinds of wild beasts swarmed. One of his negroes had a sweetheart on another plantation, and in visiting her, instead of going by the road he took a short cut through the swamps, heedless of the wild beasts, and armed only with a long knife — for he was a man of colossal strength, and of fierce and determined temper. One night he started to return late, expecting to reach the plantation in time for his daily task on the morrow. But he never reached home, and it was thought he had run away. However, when search was made for him his body was found in the path through the swamp, all gashed and torn, and but a few steps from him the body of a cougar, stabbed and cut in many places. Certainly that must have been a grim fight, in the gloomy, lonely recesses of the swamp, with no one to watch the midnight death struggle between the powerful, naked man and the ferocious brute that was his almost unseen assailant.
There is in Roosevelt’s writing immense respect for both the man and the cougar, and something like jealousy for the lot of a man with the strength, the courage, and the poor timing to end up wrestling a cougar to mutual death. Theodore Roosevelt — a man who will be president — sitting in his rocking chair with Burroughs and Poe and Hawthorne stacked beside him, looking out on a ranch that has long been less than wilderness, could hardly be further removed from the naked man in the Georgian jungle. But there is a gun at his side (the Winchester, probably) to help him when he wants to feel a little closer. And when the yearning comes, as it often should, he can take up the gun and, going out into the wilderness, search for some small thing to conquer.
This article appears as “TR on the Range” in the September 30, 2019, print edition of National Review.