Colonel Roosevelt Review: A Rough Rider at Rest

Thirty years on, Edmund Morris delivers the final volume of his Teddy Roosevelt biography

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Rare Respite
Roosevelt takes a break on his post-presidential African Safari.

No ex-president has attacked his post-Washington years with more gusto than Theodore Roosevelt. After leaving office in March 1909, T.R. embarked on a yearlong African safari and notched 296 kills. That was followed by a two-month valedictory tour of Europe, the formation of a third political party, under whose banner he attempted another presidential run, and a near fatal expedition down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon. It's the kind of postpresidency that makes the memoirs-and-lecture-circuit routine of today's former Commanders in Chief seem positively narcoleptic. And it has been manna for biographer Edmund Morris.

Morris' new book, Colonel Roosevelt, brings to a close a trilogy he began in 1979 with the Pulitzer Prize — winning Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and continued with 2001's Theodore Rex. It kicks off vigorously with that African safari and ends in 1919 with the death of Roosevelt, diminished by the loss of his son Quentin in World War I and by a bullet still lodged in his chest from a failed assassination attempt.

As large things often do, Morris' masterwork grew out of something small. Having tried his hand at ad copy and freelance writing, the Kenyan-born Morris, who arrived in the U.S. in the late '60s, spent a week during the winter of 1974-75 in the Badlands of North Dakota researching a screenplay on Roosevelt's years as a young cowboy. The script went nowhere, but Morris became fixated, and a planned short biography turned into a 2,357-page epic. "It perplexed me that someone hadn't done it before," Morris says of his decision to undertake a multivolume look at a man who contained multitudes.

While the project has taken three decades to complete, only about half that time was spent on Roosevelt. Chosen in 1985 as Ronald Reagan's authorized biographer, Morris took a 14-year break to work on Dutch, a book that was critically smacked around for the author's decision to insert himself into Reagan's life as one of several fictional characters — an attempt to counter what he saw as the Gipper's infuriatingly elusive personality.

No such problem with Roosevelt, who had "the gift of living dramatically," says Morris. Roosevelt's expansive personality and life of contradictions — he was a naturalist as well as a devoted hunter, a bellicose erstwhile soldier who was also the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize — dovetail nicely with Morris' biographical style, which is to focus on character at the expense of historical context (indeed, a critic once wrote of Morris that he lacked "the significance-sensing gene entirely"). "Biography is the story of a life," Morris demurs. "History is something different."

That kind of cinematic perspective keeps presidential biographies permanently on best-seller lists; there is a seemingly never ending appetite for books that draw our Presidents in Technicolor. "Epics have always been written about leaders — generals, tribal heads, Kings, Presidents — all of whom seem to embody the aspirations of a people," says Morris. "I think it's quite natural that Americans — all of whom feel that they could have been President if they wanted — like to read about that ultimate fulfillment." Now 70, Morris has achieved his own kind of fulfillment with Colonel Roosevelt, whose last line he planned on using ever since he started the first book more than 30 years ago. "When one feels nostalgia about something completed, it's usually because it's incomplete," he says with Rooseveltian aplomb. "It's the unfinished things in life that one regrets."

This article originally appeared in the November 29, 2010 issue of TIME.