By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
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There’s a caricature of Theodore Roosevelt as a hyper-masculine blowhard bulldozing his way through life. Not only did he carry a big stick, but he used it, both in politics and in his private life. He embodied a certain patrician ruggedness, and in no place is this more evident than in his love of hunting.
To be sure, one can find evidence to support this view of the president. Indeed, depending on the biography of TR you read, you could be forgiven for feeling that the above description is the sum of the man. Happily, Darrin Lunde’s The Naturalist focuses solely on Teddy’s relationship with the natural world, and it provides a great deal of context for better understanding the man and his times.
Full disclosure–I have been hunting. Members of my family hunt for food. I find it boring, but not morally objectionable. Big game hunting, however, where rich men pay exorbitant fees for the chance to kill a large animal for bragging rights, repulses me. My relationship to TR has always been filtered through my knowledge that he enjoyed killing lions and rhinos, shooting over 200 large animals on his post-presidential African safari. Fortunately, Lunde argues persuasively that Roosevelt’s hunts were less about masculinity than about science.
The Naturalist opens with young Teddy, age eight, acquiring the head of a seal from a New York grocer. The boy took it home, cleaned the skull (by boiling or by allowing beetles to eat the flesh), and started his own museum with the end result. From that point, science had hooked him. He collected birds and mice and other small creatures, examining them, taking copious notes, and stuffing them. He longed to become a naturalist, hunting rare animals on behalf of museums, providing specimens for laboratory scientists to examine. His professional life took a different path, obviously, but in his free time, he continued to study animals.
In the late nineteenth century, hunting was an important part of being a naturalist. Without specimens to examine, scientists could not properly determine the differences between species or understand animal anatomy. Many of the tens of thousands of specimens in the Smithsonian’s collection came from amateurs like Roosevelt. These men enjoyed the hunt, yes, but their act served a greater purpose than providing a weekend’s adventure.
Contextualizing TR’s sporting life for modern readers is no small achievement. We have assumptions about endangered animals and the environment that are descended from the views held by men like him. As I read, I was surprised to find myself admiring TR the hunter. Your take may differ from mine, but The Naturalist is certainly a must-read for those who wish to better understand Roosevelt.