- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 24, 2005

If an American soldier becomes president — and quite a few of them have — he has a good chance of being remembered by his compatriots. If he falls short of the White House, as did Gen. Leonard Wood, he will be lucky to rate a footnote in most history texts. Wood, however, now receives his due in a fine biography by Jack McCallum, Leonard Wood: Rough Rider, Surgeon, Architect of American Imperialism (New York University, $34.95, 384 pages, illus.).

In the early years of the 20th century, Wood was one of the most admired men in America. Born in Massachusetts, he graduated from Harvard Medical School and initially planned on a career in medicine. When private practice proved unrewarding, he accepted an appointment as a surgeon in the U.S. Army, and won the Medal of Honor for bravery in the last campaign against Geronimo.

In 1895 Wood was transferred to Washington where, as luck would have it, President and Mrs. McKinley became his patients. Still more important, Wood formed a fast friendship with McKinley’s assistant secretary of the navy, Theodore Roosevelt. Both favored a war that would drive Spain from Cuba and make the Caribbean an American lake.

When war came, Wood and Roosevelt left government service to organize a volunteer cavalry regiment that soon became known as the “Rough Riders.” In deference to his service in the West, Wood was made regimental commander and Roosevelt became his deputy. In training camp, according to Mr. McCallum, Wood earned respect “for his willingness to stretch protocol, for working long hours, and for sharing the most menial of tasks with his men.”

It was the ebullient Roosevelt, however, who came to epitomize the Rough Riders. Wood led the Rough Riders in their first clash in Cuba, but was then promoted to brigade command and was not present at the famous charge at San Juan’s Hill.

During the postwar occupation of Cuba that Wood performed his greatest service. Placed in command of the city of Santiago, notorious for its filth and disease, he transformed it, bringing food, justice, sanitation and public works. Wood was so successful in Santiago that he was soon given responsibility for the entire province, and in 1899 was made military governor of all Cuba.

The author describes Wood as “an acceptably handsome, erect, muscular man who stood out in a crowd … . His Calvinist morality and rigid commitment to honesty and obedience … stood in sharp contrast to the venality of the colonial government he replaced.” At the height of his powers Wood was energetic and ambitious with an immense capacity for work. He thought that Cuba would be best off if it became part of the United States, but wanted the choice to be made by Cubans.

At the end of Wood’s term in Havana, Theodore Roosevelt — now president — promoted him to major general over the heads of many more senior officers. Wood thus became “controversial,” and still more so when, as army chief of staff, he sought to implement badly needed bureaucratic reforms. Wood’s cozy relations with the White House ended abruptly with the election of Woodrow Wilson. The new president had no use for any friend of Theodore Roosevelt and, as a result, America’s most experienced soldier spent World War I in various backwaters.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1918 Wood became the preferred presidential nominee for many progressive Republicans. He led in the early balloting at the 1920 Republican convention but eventually lost out to Warren G. Harding. The author concludes that Wood “at his best” was altruistic, intelligent and self-confident, but that he could also be “arrogant, intolerant, and autocratic.” All sides of the general are presented in this fine biography

Nobody much reads the novels, essays, travel books, short stories or even the nursery rhymes of Robert Louis Stevenson anymore, but everybody has heard of “Treasure Island,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Fifteen Men on the Dead Man’s Chest” and “I have a little shadow.” Once one of the most popular writers in the Western world, Stevenson is now the subject of a splendid biography by Claire Harman, Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (HarperCollins, $29.95. 503 pages, illus.).

You may not think you care a whit about the late 19th-century writer and his quite limited literary legacy (he was much more eager to start new work than to finish the old), but Ms. Harman’s clear-eyed, wry approach to Stevenson and his colorful coterie will grab you and not let go until the end of this beautifully crafted biography.

The somewhat off-putting title is the way Stevenson himself characterized his awareness of having “two consciousnesses” at various times when he had high fevers, “myself” being his right mind, “the other fellow” being irrational and absurd. The author doesn’t overly press the issue, but points out that duality is not only the theme of his most famous work but also is apparent in most of his writings.

Stevenson was indeed sickly as a child and died young (age 44), but he also had periods of relatively robust health and led a vigorous life when his ever-anxious parents and wife let him. At Edinburgh University he seems to have spent more time in disreputable dives than in class.

Although he got a degree in engineering, his father at length agreed that Louis was not suited to the family business (lighthouse construction) and sent him to law school, where he got through on charm. “Asked by the Professor of Moral Philosophy a question on one of the textbooks, Louis said he didn’t understand the phraseology. When told it came from the textbook, he replied, ‘Yes, but you couldn’t expect me to read so poor a book as that.’ The professor, fortunately, found this amusing … .”

Stevenson never practiced law but embarked on a dilettantish literary career, supplementing his family’s remittances with slim earnings while drifting around artists’ colonies in France. He cut a romantic figure, wraithlike and presumed consumptive, writing up his travels by canoe (“An Inland Voyage”) and on foot (“Travels with a Donkey”), and falling in love with older married women.

He followed one of them, Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, to California and eventually married her. Their peripatetic search for a favorable climate and journalistic material took them from Davos, Switzerland, to Bournemouth, England, to Saranac Lake, N.Y. and eventually to the South Pacific. They started a plantation in Samoa and played host to streams of admirers. Louis got involved in local politics and sent zealously anti-German letters to The Times. He died suddenly in Samoa from a cerebral hemorrhage, and was buried there (“Under the wide and starry sky”).

Ms. Harmon deals masterfully with the origins of all of Stevenson’s work, his literary collaborations with his wastrel stepson Lloyd Osbourne, his complex relationships with the histrionic Fanny, his stepdaughter Belle, and his mother Margaret — all of whom wrote memoirs— not to mention Stevenson’s friendships with the English and Scottish literati back home and assorted others, including Mark Twain. The farther Stevenson got from Scotland, the more he became obsessed with the nature of Scottishness, “writing some of his most Scots books under the shade of tropical trees.”

Ms. Harmon’s book may yet send us back to reading “The Master of Ballantrae.”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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