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The Man Out of the Arena

by Michael Knox Beran

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris (Random House, 784 pp., $35)

It is easy to poke fun at the Teddy who exhibited himself, bodily and acrobatically, on the national stage, bagging big game in the Torrid Zone and (in his last years) bawling for a brigade to fight the Kaiser. The Harvard man whose father bought a substitute in the Civil War compensated for the stain on his family’s honor by making a cult of the warrior, the cowboy, and the blood-sportsman. Roosevelt wanted to revive the fighting and breeding man of the atavistic past, but his exaltation of the primitive virtues of the “strenuous life” appears in retrospect to be as much a hothouse growth of the 1890s as the foppery of the “mollycoddles” whose moral decay he sought to arrest. The hysterical masculinity of his “man in the arena” — the tormented gladiator whose face “is marred by dust and sweat and blood” — is as characteristic a specimen of fin-de-siècle over-ripeness as Beardsley’s drawings and Wilde’s epigrams; it is bathed in the violet glow of the Mauve Decade.

Give a man a mask, Wilde said, and he will tell you the truth. The truth about Roosevelt lies beneath the mask. It is the virtue of Colonel Roosevelt, the last volume of Edmund Morris’s three-part biography of the president, that it brings the reader into such intimacy with the hero that he soon forgives the poses of the mob-magician, or rather sees that the poses were not simple charlatanism but the expressions of a highly original character, one that was more interesting out of the arena than in it.

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