Simon & Schuster, 2020.
$28.00, 352 pages. Available here.
HE’S UP THERE, of course, but he often resides in the shadows, tucked in a granite niche between Jefferson, a man he loathed, and Lincoln, his hero since his youth. Mount Rushmore is just one of the innumerable places where travelers will encounter Theodore Roosevelt in the American West. From his namesake park in North Dakota to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, TR’s presence looms over a landscape he transformed more than any other single figure in American history. In Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness, David Gessner recounts his visit to many of these sites and how they helped him rediscover a figure whose century-old words and actions in the cause of conservation remain relevant to our times.
Gessner’s book represents the latest effort in a decade-long movement (begun in 2009 with Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior) among historians, biographers, scientists, filmmakers, and now, nature writers, to elevate Roosevelt’s place in the pantheon of American environmental heroes. And to Gessner, TR is not merely a hero; he is a “champion” and a “savior.” Yet he does not whitewash Roosevelt’s record where he finds blemishes, such as his attitude toward Native Americans or that “he often responded to the beautiful things he saw in nature by killing them.” A little over a century after his death in 1919, it is increasingly hard to find something new to say about TR, and perhaps what is most important about this book is not what it says, but to whom it is addressed. America’s gun owners and hunters love Roosevelt, as do fans of national parks, but because of the enduring power of the caricature and stereotype of him as a bloodthirsty “Bully!”-spouting imperialist, the environmental movement has viewed him with skepticism. As an environmentalist and an accomplished writer, Gessner is uniquely positioned to win converts to the gospel of TR.
Gessner stresses that if Roosevelt had not acted to set aside and preserve hundreds of millions of acres, those lands would likely have been developed and despoiled. He believes preservation, as TR articulated during his 1903 visit to the Grand Canyon, should still be embraced as a response to many of our contemporary conservation issues. The main point of Roosevelt’s remarks at the canyon not only provides Gessner with his book title but also serves as his rallying cry. In particular, he dwells on the case of Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah, which President Obama established and whose boundaries President Trump has dramatically reduced. The threat to this place moves Gessner to embrace TR’s philosophy of preservation.
The author mirrors his subject: at one moment calm and reflective, and the next full of anger and fight. In Roosevelt’s wartime and western experiences, Gessner finds the wellspring of TR’s urge to fight, an urge he would put to use against the corporate and political titans of his day in the quest to preserve vast swaths of the American landscape. But this call to arms to withstand or reverse changes that man has wrought in the environment, what Gessner calls “muscular environmentalism,” seems at odds with TR’s mantra to “leave it as it is.” Gessner and TR ask us to both enter the arena and to step back from it, challenging us to heal those places that require our intervention and preserve those that need only our benign neglect.
When I first read the advance proof of this book, I felt that I would be neglecting my duties as a historian and as a gatekeeper of Roosevelt’s memory (I serve on the Advisory Board of the Theodore Roosevelt Association) if I did not bring to the publisher’s attention the significant factual errors I found. My thinking was that the last thing that Simon & Schuster should do with this work is to leave it as it is. And so, I dutifully reported my edits and corrections, received a polite thank you, and pondered my next move.
In the end, two factors combined to overwhelm my hesitation to complete the review. First, I admired Gessner’s desire “to be generous and to extend historical empathy” to Roosevelt, and I felt I should extend the same charity to him. Gessner, rather than seeing my edits as the meddling of a detail-minded historian, graciously acknowledged my assistance. Second, quite simply, this book needs to be read at this moment in our history. That we are divided, fractured, splintered, and warring has become accepted knowledge, and that we must find a way to close the breach has become a necessity. If we cannot find a healing balm among ourselves, then perhaps we should look to the past.
Roosevelt was born, raised, and lived most of his life in a blue state and experienced his conservation epiphany in a red state. A Victorian moralist, he was a conservative in his personal life and also the nation’s first Progressive presidential candidate. He camped with John Muir, who worshipped trees, and empowered Gifford Pinchot, who managed them as a commodity. He relished hunting, and every spring would look forward to the return of “my friends, the warblers.” He was, like the nation he led, full of “boisterous contradictions.” Yes, Virginia, there is something we can all agree on: “Theodore Roosevelt was a great man.”
In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film North by Northwest, Cary Grant’s character gazes at Mount Rushmore and says, “I don’t like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.” With his beloved Badlands drilled, fracked, and polluted, plummeting numbers of songbirds, and millions of acres of national forest dead and dying, we should all avert our gaze lest we meet the scowl of the president whose legacy we seem so determined to squander. O