Modernity’s best-selling history book author, David McCullough, knew how to tell a factual story that did not leave his readers yawning or pining for a thriller. Before he died in August 2022 at age 89, his thorough biographies, two of which received the Pulitzer Prize, captivated millions of readers due to his stimulating storytelling style. “Mornings on Horseback,” the biography of the 26th president published in 1981, spans 17 years of Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s life.
Instead of beginning at the time of birth, McCullough brings us into “Teedie’s” life at age 10 and exposes the juxtaposition of his parents’ lives: an antebellum, Georgia-raised mother and a quintessentially New Yorker father. His South and North parents’ devotion to one another during the Civil War solidified Theodore’s firm, family-oriented foundation. And it was their devotion to helping their oldest son overcome a failure to thrive due to asthma that strengthened Theodore for a life of exhilarating adventure and emotional tenacity.
The book’s initial setting is New York’s latter-19th-century affluent social arena, but sickly Theodore is taken on an inspiring European journey to invigorate him. The nature-loving amateur taxidermist begins to build stamina through outdoor pursuits and a regimen of calisthenics. By the time he enteres Harvard, Theodore is a thriving physical and academic force.
Throughout the book, McCullough “painted with words,” according to a Yale honorary degree citation, the distinct young man’s growing zest for life. But McCullough then reveals the raw grief that dashes Theodore’s enthusiasm and high hopes. He’s been married only four years when his first wife dies of kidney failure on February 14, 1884, only days after their daughter is born and only hours after his mother dies from typhoid fever.
Instead of drawing shades on the dark period, Theodore heads west. And readers get to ride alongside him on horseback as he encounters grizzlies, rounds up cattle, subdues a criminal, and shoots big game. His immersion into a wild land not only shapes the courageous character that he will need to help fight a war and succeed in politics, but it rectifies his shattered heart so that he is able to build and cherish a prominent family.
No surprise, “Mornings on Horseback” achieved for McCullough a National Book Award. Its depth among 370 pages leaves readers yearning to know even more about a man who embodied a true and hearty American spirit.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.