River Doubt – Book Comment
By: Candice Millard
Publisher: Anchor Books, Random House Inc. (www.anchorbooks.com)
Cover design: Lovedog Studio
Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, April 5, 2013
Summary: RIVER DOUBT: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey tells the story of President Theodore Roosevelt’s exploration into the Amazon jungle after his 1912 election defeat at the head of the Progressive Party.
The most fascinating aspect of history is learning about how people saw themselves within their historical context. It is an impossible task of course. We cannot get into the minds of long dead people and examine what they thought. We have only their deeds, their acts.
In performing his duties as America’s first president, did George Washington know he was establishing precedents that would last for over two hundred years? Perhaps he did. But surly he did not know the extent of his legacy. Therein lies the fascination. Why did he initially refuse to accept a $25,000 a year salary as President? Historians tell us that it was because he regarded public service as a value in itself in which public trust as a servant was the payment. Yet, he reversed himself and accepted the salary when it was pointed out that if the office of President came without monetary payment, only the rich would serve: Idealism versus calculated intent.
In Candice Millard’s RIVER DOUBT, we get a peek behind the façade of another American president, Theodore Roosevelt. Like the previous great Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt implemented governmental policies that fundamentally altered the public concept of representative government. His attacks on “trusts” (large corporations), his introduction of government regulatory activities into the daily lives of citizens, and his support of representative labor (labor unions) in the May 1902 United Mine Workers strike were extensions of governmental power and a re-definition of “government by the people, for the people”. It would seem rather obvious that Roosevelt knew the future impact of what he was doing. How “deep” was his understanding of that future impact. Was he building for the future or merely addressing a current problem?
In relating the story of Roosevelt’s adventure on Brazil’s River Doubt, Millard correctly points out that the real explorer, Candido Rondon, head of Brazil’s Strategic Telegraph Commission, had to scale-back his exploration agenda to accommodate the former president. But he did and, with the help of Roosevelt’s son, Kermit, guided Roosevelt through the Amazon basin. From his letters and later retelling of events, we know Roosevelt felt he was contributing to expanding our knowledge of the world, of Brazil, of the Amazon. We can look back on Roosevelt’s experience and see it as a minor accomplishment. It is minor because Roosevelt has already made the journey. Stepping into the future, the unknown; this is what Roosevelt accomplished on his journey down the River Doubt. The act itself speaks directly to Roosevelt’s character, seemingly bellicose, impatient and egocentric. But far weightier than these blips of behavior was a character firmly anchored in a future only he could sense. Coupled with an attitude of public service, looking to the future is the marker we use to determine greatness in individuals. Theodore Roosevelt carried the marker in abundance.
The only problem with Candice Millard’s RIVER DOUBT is that we do not get enough of what happened after Roosevelt survived his exploration down the River Doubt; a minor point. But the author has provided a thoroughly enjoyable and informative adventure in telling this story.