Fast and loose with facts


Ed Marston's piece on Douglas Brinkley's The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America can hardly be called a "review" (HCN, 1/18/10). Marston's article simply rehearses -- much more succinctly than Brinkley's 900-plus pages -- the life and political accomplishments of an amazing American leader. What Marston fails to do, is to evaluate critically Brinkley's telling of TR's tale.

For a well-published historian from a prestigious university, Douglas Brinkley plays pretty fast and loose with the facts. For example, he has the teenage Teddy making journal entries in the "Adirondack Park" in the summer of 1871 when there was no "park" until the New York state Legislature established it in 1892.

Brinkley skates on thin ice in making TR a devout Darwinian on the basis of a few journal entries, yet Brinkley has Darwin (and Lincoln) born on "... February 22, 1803" -- and this in a book published in 2009, the well-publicized bicentennial of Darwin's and Lincoln's birth on Feb. 12, not the 22.

What concerns me most, however, as a professional ecologist, is Brinkley's seeming complete ignorance of biological fact. He has the microscope invented in 1888, when Antony van Leeuwenhoek invented it 200 years before that, and he has the young Roosevelt at Harvard in 1876 bored in Professor Shaler's lectures on "shifting tectonic plates," when Alfred Wegener didn't publish on continental drift until 1912, and few geologists accepted it until the 1960s.

Clearly Teddy, although he lived at a time not our own, truly experienced nature and was a real pro at describing her. Would that Brinkley had anywhere near TR's talent as a naturalist or a scholar.

Thomas Vawter, Ph.D.
Professor of biology and
environmental science
Wells College,
Aurora, New York