What did two of the most famous Americans of the early 20th century have in common?
In this interesting if overlong dual biography of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) and Mark Twain (1835–1910), McFarland (Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe, 2007, etc.) seems bent on challenging the conventional wisdom as to which of these two Gilded Age giants had the better progressive credentials. In one corner stands Roosevelt, the war hero and manly man who busted the Standard Oil monopoly, protected national lands, and worked to improve labor conditions. He was also a defiant imperialist who thought it was the duty of America to spread civilization to backward, pagan countries, whether they wanted it or not. In the other corner stands the genius writer and humorist Twain, who helped expose the moral evil of slavery and thought the United States had no business helping “liberate” the Philippines from Spain. He was also a wealthy venture capitalist whose best friends were oil barons and thought government had no business telling John Rockefeller what to do. Roosevelt and Twain were alike in many ways: voluminous writers, beloved celebrities, wealthy men who enjoyed great success and suffered terrible personal tragedy and who opposed slavery but not white supremacy. McFarland’s story is both personal and political, focusing on the lives and philosophies of both subjects. Though his thematic, nonchronological approach highlights differences, it also leads to a lot of repetition of facts, quotes and stories.
The still-relevant contrast between these two American powerhouses is well told. Both men were consumed by domestic and international problems that continue to reverberate.