“The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey”
by Candice Millard
416 pp., Doubleday Books
Reviewed by Ivan Schwartz
Founder/Director, Studio EIS
As a keen observer who has ridden history’s coat tails, this assignment to write about Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt,” (published by Anchor Books in 2005), makes me feel slightly like an interloper whose disguise may be falling away.
That said, after re-reading this utterly compelling book, the first thing that occurred to me was that I’d like to re-do the bronze sculpture I did of Teddy Roosevelt for the American Museum of Natural History back in 2012 (see below).
Roosevelt lived large. As Millard writes: “He had shaped his own character — and that of his country- through sheer force of will, relentlessly choosing action over inaction, and championing what he famously termed “the strenuous life.”
His political gambit in leaving the White House, after promising never to run again after winning his second term, led to a splitting of the Republican party. This doomed not only his chance for reelection as the Bull Moose candidate, but also that of his hand-picked vice president, William Howard Taft. This effectively won the 1912 election for Woodrow Wilson.
“The River of Doubt” moves fleetingly through the end of the 1912 election season, into Roosevelt’s despair about being out of office and cast aside. He retired to Sagamore Hill on Long Island, NY. According to Herman Hagedorn, Roosevelt’s literary friend and biographer: “The Colonel was outside the pale. He had done the unforgivable thing — he had ‘turned against his class.’ He was a pariah, and he was painfully aware of it.”
A few months after this humiliating defeat, an opportunity to cast aside his despair came in the form of a formal invitation from the Museo Social in Buenos Aires. The goal of this new institution was to bring men and ideas together. It didn’t take long for this germ of an idea to grow into something much larger and pleasing to Roosevelt.
The idea of traveling to South America, and expanding the trip to include an element of scientific research, was at the heart of his expanding itinerary. Accompanying him was a burgeoning cast of characters who were invited at the behest of the American Museum of Natural History (an organization founded partly by his father in 1869). Rightly so, the museum had keen interest in the well-being of the former President, especially as his plans began to include exploration of the Amazon.
Roosevelt’s trip began in late 1913, and continued well into 1914. It became a scientific mission of discovery to explore an unknown tributary of Brazil was known as Rio da Duvida — the river of doubt.
Compare this for a moment to today’s presidents who after they leave office undoubtedly do good work by creating philanthropic foundations, and opening presidential libraries. For Roosevelt, however, his post-presidential adventures included exploring remote parts of the world that were hitherto undiscovered, and never mapped. And to do so, he put his own life at risk.
Depending upon your point of view, Millard’s book is either an object lesson in how visions of grandeur are realized — or the anatomy of a disaster deconstructed.
Part of what intrigues me most about Millard’s portrayal of Roosevelt is that despite the 50 tons of supplies, 200 pack animals, porters, paddlers, and camarades he brought along, for the most part, a naïve delegation of organizers who simply had no idea where they were going or what obstacles they might face. Their exploration of the Rio da Duvida was roughly equivalent to traveling to another planet.
Intriguing, too, is how the journey evolved. Brazil’s Ambassador to the United States, Don Domicio Da Gama, introduced Roosevelt to Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Lauro Muller, who realized the journey that was to become Roosevelt’s last. And so, he cast Roosevelt and the newly formed expedition plans into the hands of this story’s real hero — Colonel Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, a 48-year-old commander of the Strategic Telegraph Commission.
Rondon, who had spent much of his life exploring the Amazon, agreed to take on the job of escorting Roosevelt — but only on the condition that the expedition was at its heart scientific, and not just a hunting jaunt for the former president.
But not even Rondon could have foreseen the bewildering array of travails that would befall the expedition and its men. And that is something you’ll discover when you read this book.
Suffice it to say that in the end, Millard gives us an astonishing picture of the will to survive. She focuses our attention on Roosevelt, bringing this fascinating and sui generis character to life.
For those of us who love to look through the lens of history backwards and desire to breathe and feel as if you lived during another time, Millard succeeds brilliantly in this tome.
Be sure to also investigate her book: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.
Ivan Schwartz is a sculptor, and the founder/director of Studio EIS in Brooklyn, New York.