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Defining Teddy for the ages

Theodore Roosevelt's Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon - Michael Patrick Cullinane

Presidents experience one of two fates after their death. While most recede into history and are remembered by most Americans as little more than images tacked up in rows on elementary school walls, a few become icons whose names and faces become part of the culture. Among the latter group is Theodore Roosevelt, a larger-than-life figure whose image remains almost as publicly recognizable today as it was during his heyday. Michael Patrick Cullinane's book is about the ways in which his image has endured, and the efforts of many people to ensure that it did.

 

The effort to define Roosevelt's posthumous image began with the moment of his death. As news of his passing spread throughout the nation, obituary writers and eulogists strove to define him in a variety of ways, all of which spoke to his multifaceted life and career. Memorial organizations soon emerged that sought to define his legacy with monuments and other programs. At the forefront of this was Roosevelt's family, though the seemingly unassailable control of Roosevelt's wife and children was soon challenged by political ascension of Theodore Roosevelt's distant cousin Franklin, who as president laid claim to Theodore's memory in ways that created a rift within the family. By the 1950s, memorializaton took on a different cast, as the generation that remembered Theodore Roosevelt was replaced by one who knew him only as a historical figure. Picking up on the themes outlined by their predecessors, this new generation continued to define and defend Roosevelt's legacy in ways that reflected efforts to establish his continuing relevance to a changing country and kept him at the forefront of the historical imagination.

 

Cullinane's book provides readers with a good look at how Roosevelt;s image has remained alive long after his body was laid to rest. His description of the memorialization efforts is a particular strength of the book, as he shows just how much thought and effort went into creating monuments designed to define Roosevelt's complex legacy for future generations. Yet for all of his labors, one person is surprisingly absent from Cullinane's analysis: Theodore Roosevelt himself. As good as his book is, it would have been much stronger had it begun with a chapter that examined his subject's own efforts to shape his public persona while he was alive. Given how media savvy Roosevelt was, his own efforts made him the single most influential definer of his posthumous image, with every other person involved working with the material he left them.