Plains Folk

Roosevelt in the Badlands


The storyline is irresistible. A poor little rich kid, afflicted with asthma and other ailments, strengthens himself through hard work and determination to become a man’s man–and yet, he retains his reflective, literary aspect. Ivy-League education and social privilege do not spoil him, but rather steel him to take up politics, much to the disdain of his peers, in the cause of virtuous reform.

Hardly has this promising public life begun when double tragedy strikes–the deaths of his devoted mother and of his adored wife, the same night. And where might a shattered man rebuild himself, his protestations to the contrary? In the Badlands of the northern plains, of course, hunting wild beasts and raising semi-wild cattle. Then it was on to a renewed public life, achievements in statecraft, and a place on Mount Rushmore.

It’s a story that has been told before, and now it has been told again. A new book, Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands, by Roger L. di Silvestro, is subtitled, A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West.

I began this work with relish, and I’m not sorry I read it, but it proved disappointing. The subject is great–the same subject that inspired, three generations ago, Lincoln Lang and Hermann Hagedorn, authors of classic works on Theodore Roosevelt’s western sojourn.

The problem is, the author, di Silvestro, just doesn’t quite have the chops to do justice to the subject. He is a naturalist, not a historian. He makes good use of some primary material in eastern repositories, but otherwise the primary research is a bit sketchy. Then he has a tendency to drop in ideas from secondary works, apparently intended to seem impressively current, which instead just come off as strange. He returns several times, for instance, to a work by a sociologist who, not writing about Roosevelt or the West, argues that pretty much all social ills are due to excessive testosterone in young males. This sort of pseudo-analysis seems to resonate with the psycho-therapeutic subtitle of di Silvestro’s book.

The author might have better spent his research time in the current literature on the history of the range cattle industry, which would have kept him from the old mistake of over-emphasizing the influence of Texas cattle and cattle culture on the northern range and would have led him to notice that Roosevelt brought his cattle, and his cattle managers, from the east by rail, not from the south up the dusty trail.

Nor do I get the impression that di Silvestro got his boots on the ground, really went over the country in order to understand its influence on Roosevelt. Little things niggle, too, such as the author’s confusion about the difference between buffalo robes and buffalo hides. The point that does emerge, and convincingly, is that TR’s western experiences were pivotal in his life trajectory.

It seems I have launched into something of a rant here, and perhaps been a bit too critical of a readable and informative book, but the thing is, it represents a larger problem. We people of the northern plains, and more specifically we historians of the northern plains, have not done what we should to provide our region with a constructive history–a history that speaks to the northern plains and interprets it, not parochially, but with the insights that flow from presence in the place, and without the baggage of New-Age sensitivities or other imposed standards.

There is no university press on the northern plains. Neither North Dakota nor South Dakota boasts a research library worthy of the name. And until quite recently, we have lacked the advanced programs and advanced students to dig deep into our accumulated experience.

Create such a historical vacuum, and someone is going to waltz in to fill it–and we may not be well served.

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