Courtesy of Regal House Publishing

October 29, 2020

An Interview with Author James Ross B.A. ’75 J.D. ’82: ‘Hunting Teddy Roosevelt’

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The furor surrounding this year’s presidential election brings with it nothing more than a mélange of confusion, partisan politics, fear and so many other unsavory components that to delve through even the most innocuous of them would turn this article into a completely different one. Interestingly enough, though, another topic has enjoyed renewed public discussion: What a now-former Commander in Chief of this country does with his (at this point, still his) time after leaving the White House. Some former presidents, like Jimmy Carter or George H. W. Bush, devoted themselves to humanitarian work, while others, like John Quincy Adams or Andrew Johnson, returned to positions in federal government. Especially in the case of the latter two, it is occasionally difficult to predict what exactly the former President will do, even simply in the immediate months after his term ends. In the case of Theodore Roosevelt, however, one of the first things he did after leaving office could have hardly been more expected: He went on a safari.

This trip to various places around the continent of Africa was probably a welcome source of relief for the so-called “Trustbuster,” even as he began to wonder whether he made the correct choice in declining to seek re-election when he did. The safari epitomized many of the issues and pastimes he loved and championed during his time in the White House: Conservation, game hunting and general sojourns in the rugged wilderness of the Earth. After its conclusion, Roosevelt wrote an account of his journey, but it did not go into much detail besides the actual sights he encountered while abroad. Now, though, a new novel attempts to fill that void with its speculative narrative about what occurred on that safari: Hunting Teddy Roosevelt, written by James A. Ross B.A. ’75, J.D. ’82 and published by Regal House Publishing. And fill that void it does, all at once relating tales of a two people reflecting on their shared romance long after it has ended, encounters with aspects of the simmering political and social turmoil in Europe around the beginning of the 1910s and at its center, even a dastardly scheme to assassinate the former President himself. That last part becomes the book’s driving force — because of Roosevelt’s crusade against trusts and other forms of big business, the robber barons controlling much of American industry at the turn of the century did not hold him in the highest regard, to put it mildly. Thus, J. P. Morgan and others send Dooley, a New York hooligan forged from the very depths of the Five Points, to dispatch him. Against the backdrop of Dooley’s mission, Roosevelt runs into Margaret Dunn, an indefatigable reporter who was the former President’s first love many years before. As Roosevelt grapples with these two complications, one unknown and one reluctantly acknowledged, he travels through Europe and Africa, interacting with regions in crisis and beginning to wonder whether he made the right decision in leaving office; the result of these threads makes for an in-depth, entertaining and suspenseful narrative, as informative about the time period it chronicles as it is intriguing.

James A. Ross was gracious enough to answer a number of questions about his novel via email for this article; that exchange appears below (though spoilers are present).

Let us start with some broader questions: How did you get the idea to write Hunting Teddy Roosevelt? How long did it take to complete?

Quite by accident, I ran across a blurb in a 1909 Italian newspaper which reported that a German ship carrying Roosevelt to Africa had docked in Naples where the police took off an alleged anarchist accused of attacking Roosevelt with a knife while on board. While I was familiar with the assassination attempt on Roosevelt when he was giving a speech during the presidential campaign of 1912, I had never heard of any prior attempt on his life. As far as I know, there is no mention of the 1909 attack in any of the history books, nor in the many Roosevelt biographies.  Naturally, this raises a few intriguing questions, among them: (1) Was the shipboard attempt on Roosevelt’s life suppressed? And if so, by how, why and by who?  And (2) While in the last sixty years, the world has become all too familiar with assassinations of political office holders and candidates, in 1909 the fifty-year-old Roosevelt was out of power and on his way to an isolated and dangerous part of the world that might have killed him anyway. Who would want to make an attempt on his life then, and why? Hunting Teddy Roosevelt is my attempt to answer these questions. The research and writing took four years.

Hunting Teddy Roosevelt is based on an actual expedition Roosevelt embarked on soon after the end of his Presidential term; what was the process of researching it for the novel like, and how closely did you adhere to what actually happened during that time?

Roosevelt wrote an account of his 1909 safari in a series of articles for Scribner’s Magazine, later compiled into a book, African Game Trails. The action in Hunting Teddy Roosevelt adheres closely to the chronology in Roosevelt’s book, adding only the untold story of the hunter Roosevelt being himself hunted. The research included reading almost everything ever written by and about Roosevelt, as well as several trips to antiquarian book shops in New York and London to purchase out of print explorers journals in order to research turn of the century African travel.

One of the pivotal (and most interesting) characters is Margaret Dunn, a resourceful reporter in the mold of Nellie Bly and others who is working for William Randolph Hearst; she also used to be romantically involved with Roosevelt when both of them were much younger. Who did you base her character on, if anyone? How integral to the narrative did you want that pseudo-romantic/journalistic subtext that she brought to be?

Maggie is based loosely on the well-known American journalist Nellie Bly, as well as the little-known African explorer Mary Kingsly. In 1909. England, France and Germany were in an arms race driven in part, by Germany’s demand to have an equal share in the colonial spoils game. Maggie’s character brings to the story and exposes the geo-political issues that Roosevelt would have encountered in Africa and how they might have played in his decision to run for president again. The essential elements of a book like Hunting Teddy Roosevelt are: Larger than life main character (Roosevelt), exotic locale (Nineteenth century East and Central Africa), and global stakes (will or won’t Roosevelt return to run for president in 1912 and in so doing prevent the outbreak of WWI, end genocide in the Congo and the resurgence of slavery in the Sudan.) It’s through the character Maggie that the reader learns the scope and scale of what is at stake in Roosevelt’s decision whether to return from Africa and run for president again.

Dooley, the man charged by J. P. Morgan and company to kill Roosevelt on his expedition, also makes for a fascinating character, hailing from the same city as Roosevelt himself albeit from a completely different background as well as accepting the job not due to personal disdain held towards Roosevelt but rather to help his brother, who is currently imprisoned. However, the most interesting aspects of his character are revealed through his discussions with Roosevelt himself near the novel’s beginning, while pretending to protect him along with the Pinkertons; early on, he claims that his lack of support for Roosevelt does not interfere with the fact that he “came to do a job.” Even if this job is a complete ruse, his comment nonetheless mirrors his pragmatic reasons for agreeing to kill Roosevelt in the first place. Based on this and other qualities, do you intend for Dooley to be seen as more than just the main antagonist, or did you simply want him to appear more as a more multidimensional antagonist?

The job Dooley came to do was to kill Roosevelt; so the comment was intended to be ironic. More importantly, the Dooley character is meant to illustrate how opinions can become heirlooms, specific to class and culture and passed from generation to generation. Dooley reflects the prejudices of his class regarding the 1-percent-ers of his time, and Roosevelt is equally naive about the realities of Dooley’s world. It’s not a problem unique to 1909 America, and the Roosevelt/Dooley dialogs are intended to show that untested prejudice can dissipate when exposed to the object of that prejudice.

Though he makes it clear that he does not want to publicly comment on any of it, Roosevelt is confronted by the presence of many pointed current events during his expedition, including the goings-on concerning King Leopold and the Force Publique in the Congo and the unrest in Europe before what would later become World War I. As a result, an entertaining tale about a conspiracy to kill the former President also provides interesting observations about the sociopolitical atmosphere engulfing the world at that time. Why did you decide to include these elements as prominently as you did in the story? Does their resulting depth equal what you may have intended?

My view is that had Roosevelt won the election of 1912, WWI might have been avoided; and without WWI, there would have been no WWII. Without the two world wars, the Middle East would not be as irrationally and horrifically Balkanized as it is today, and Japan — not China — would likely be the dominant power in Asia.  The modern world would look very different, as would the place of the U.S. in it.

The novel ends two years after Roosevelt’s expedition, with the notorious assassination attempt right before the beginning of his campaign speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Of course, John Flammang Schrank (the would-be assassin) actually hit Roosevelt, but ultimately was about as successful as Morgan, Dooley and company two years earlier. Is there any particular reason you decided to end with this moment besides the obvious motif of Roosevelt’s resilience?

Presidential assassins have almost always been dismissed as “lone actors” and “mad men.” If the report of an obscure 1909 Naples newspaper is true, is it credible that two “lone actors” or “mad men” acting separately tried to kill Roosevelt prior to the 1912 election?  Roosevelt left office in 1909 as the most popular president since George Washington; and like Washington, he could have had a third term for the asking. But he decided to follow Washington’s example and not run for a third term. Unlike Washington, he pledged not to run for a third “consecutive term.” During his seven and a half years in office, Roosevelt used the new anti-trust laws to break up monopolies (then called trusts) in railroads, steel and basic commodities, and in so doing made powerful enemies among the so-called robber barons of his era.  Morgan, et. al. bought the Republican convention of 1900 that nominated McKinley. But when McKinley was assassinated six months into his first term, the fixers got the firebrand Roosevelt instead. He was not what they had bargained and paid for.  After seven years of busting Wall Street chops, Roosevelt’s selfless hiatus was a gift, as well as an opportunity. I ended the book with the second assassination attempt to underscore the point that the kind of people who buy elections and hire assassins don’t necessarily quit when at first they don’t succeed.

 

John Colie is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jcolie@cornellsun.com.