The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt and His Times chronicles Teddy Roosevelt’s life until the time he becomes president.
It’s a story of a superhero of sorts: a man with a life full of exciting moments, with a generous heart for the poor.
The author, Jerome Charyn answered some questions about his protagonist:
- What attracted you to Theodore Roosevelt?
I’ve always believed that Theodore Roosevelt is our greatest peacetime president.
There are a lot of contradictions in TR, but he is the first modern superhero – he had boundless energy, all the energy of superman.
He was the first scion of an aristocratic family to enter politics. He was also the first president to come from a big city – from my city, New York.
He was never rich, he never worked in the service of money. He had no greed. He had received a legacy but he put all of his inheritance into two ranches in the Dakotas, then lost everything in a dust storm.
TR started very early in his life, first as an assemblyman, then, despite losing his run for mayor, Roosevelt continued to push for reforms that served citizens of New York. He became both police commissioner and president of the police board. At that time, the police department was a nest of cronyism and corruption. TR accomplished great things as police commissioner. He was famous for going on midnight rambles to see for himself how the police were operating.
While police commissioner, he used his position on the housing commission to push for better conditions for the poor – he went into the tenements and tried to reform them, working for better housing for Jews, Irish, Italians.
Big business hated him because he supported upholding Blue Laws. Instead of spending his leisure time with industrialists and the rich, TR spent time with newspapermen like Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens.
As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he formed his own regiment to fight in the Spanish-American War. He was elected New York’s Governor in 1899, and Vice President in 1901. Just months later, following McKinley’s assassination, TR became our 26th President at the age of 42.
TR was a man of startling contradictions. He was a big game hunter – lots of trophy heads – but he revered animals. He was an avid birder who could sing all the birdsongs with perfect pitch. TR launched the DAWES Act which protected national parks from concessionaires.
He had the first black guest in the White House – Booker T. Washington – he was derided and caricatured for that. A black regiment fought alongside him on San Juan Hill.
We’ve all heard of TR the Rough Rider, but I was also interested in what happened after the Rough Riders disbanded. I discovered that Roosevelt continued to take care of them. They became his family. He supported them and got them out of trouble; and rescued them when they needed rescuing.
I was especially moved by TR’s relationship with his pet mountain lion, Josephine – and she has a whole chapter in my novel [which is dedicated to Ting, my first and favorite feline.]
2. Was he really as inspiring as history records, or was he just a product of his time?
TR is a man who was totally misunderstood. He was far more complicated than we could ever imagine. Yes, he had his prejudices, but he loved nature and the natural world, and if he were still alive, species would not be disappearing by the hour. If we lose out animals, we will have a desert in front of us, without beauty, without water, without poetry.
3. What parallels do you see between Roosevelt’s time and our own?
What seems startling is that there are so many similarities between TR and our current president – they both arose out of a kind of contradiction.
Since they were both outsiders, both mavericks, they didn’t have any obligations to anyone.
And both of them seemed to have an astounding good time as president – and enjoy wielding the power of the presidency.
The Republicans were actually trying to get rid of TR when they sent him into the graveyard of the vice presidency – as governor he was interfering with big business and they didn’t want to support him for reelection.
But how the hell could they know that McKinley would be shot?
At the time, Mark Hanna, US Senator and head of the Republican National Committee, said about TR: “that mad man is one heartbeat away from the presidency.”
However, the discrepancy between the rich and the poor were almost EXACTLY the same then as now. The difference was that we had coal miners then and now we have people who work at Walmart or McDonalds – it’s a universe of minimum wage.
Instead of Amazon and Apple, in TR’s time we had US Steel. So, the most powerful person in America was J. Pierpont Morgan – he controlled the economy of the US with his button-like nose. Today we have Amazon, Facebook and Apple to drive the economy.
4. What did you learn in the process of writing the book that you didn’t realize before?
For so long he’s been presented as a kind of cartoon president, and if I had not swum deeply into his history I never would have understood how complicated a man he was. Tiny, asthmatic he was brought back to life by his father who took him on sleigh rides through the wild west of upper Manhattan and taught him how not to be a snob, or use his wealth to take advantage of other people.
His whole life was formed by his desire to never violate his father’s beliefs in fairness and concern for the disadvantaged.
He never would have achieved greatness without his father’s ghost.
5. Is TR a figure for our time?
In many ways he was quite old-fashioned and certainly very prim and proper about sexuality, so he would be bewildered by trans people and gender fluidity, however, he had a very powerful moral sense of what was right and what was wrong and would have been an absolute champion of the environment. He also would have despaired the great divide between poverty and wealth in this country and would have been a real equalizer.
For reviews of the book, visit Goodreads.