By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA

Nothing says American quite like the cowboy. In fact, the word cowboy still has currency in our lingo, suggesting a particularly American kind of rugged and independent spirit.

The cowboy of yesteryear came in all shapes and sizes. Billy the Kid was young and diminutive. Wild Bill Hickock was likely certifiable. Buffalo Bill was a dandy showman and genocidal marksman. But according to master novelist Jerome Charyn, the greatest cowboy, the king of cowboys, was Teddy Roosevelt, who went West “furnished with silver stirrups, a tailored buckskin suit, and a Bowie knife from Tiffany’s.”

To get the lowdown on the hero of his new book, The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King (a novel of Teddy Roosevelt and His Times), I sat down with Jerome Charyn to get his side of the story.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Let’s start with the cover story. I love the Superhero sweep of type and TR’s booted, Beast-Master pose.

JEROME CHARYN: The cover is spectacular, because my editor, Robert Weil, willed it to be. He sensed the superhero nature of Theodore Roosevelt’s pursuits in the novel and wanted to capture it as an image. I suggested the mountain lion on the leash, and the magic of it came together.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: In your wonderfully dramatic story of the boy who became the manly reformer, you explore TR’s formative influences, especially those of his father.

JEROME CHARYN: We wouldn’t have Theodore Roosevelt, the man and the future president, without the example that his father set for him. What drew me to TR was not only his relationship with his father, but his father’s absolute generosity. Theodore Roosevelt Sr. was Brave Heart, a king among men. Took his Sunday dinners with newsboys instead of industrialists and relished every moment. And would never pass a stray kitten without picking it up and bringing it to two cat ladies on Second Avenue. 

I was particularly moved because of my own troubled relationship with my father. I had to unlearn the ways of the world and discover my own path, while TR had the absolute generosity and example of his father. 

TR never lived anywhere without an image of his father on the wall—including the White House. 

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Early on, you show young TR’s physical challenges, emphasizing his weak constitution, especially his eyes. Wonderful irony, considering he became one of America’s great visionaries.

JEROME CHARYN: Theodore Roosevelt didn’t see the spectacular world of color until he wore his first pair of glasses, and when he went to battle in Cuba, he kept spare pairs of spectacles in every single one of his ten pockets. I wouldn’t connect his vision to his weak eyes, but to his powerful mind and his belief in absolute fairness.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Though he grew up in a relatively wealthy home, with “six generations of Roosevelt at his rear,” you make it clear that TR was forever proud of his family’s farmer past and the “smell of manure that clung to the family name.” 

JEROME CHARYN: We cannot whitewash the man. He was a hunter, and proud of it. You can find antlers everywhere in Sagamore Hill, but he believed that the animals he hunted should have their own environment and kingdoms and he did his best to deliver such kingdoms to them. We should not extract him from his own time; he was filled with contradictions, but he believed that the land belonged to people and to wildlife and not to a carnival of hucksters and corporations.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Knowing you and your novels as I do, I’m guessing that the opportunity to write about New York (1862-1901) was almost as big a draw as writing about TR himself. 

JEROME CHARYN: I’m a lazy guy. I know New York City. I could invent with my eyes closed and feel the music of the place. Manhattan sang in my dreams.
Jerome Charyn

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You do a great job dramatizing TR’s independent spirit, showing how he was distrustful of both the Democratic and Republican parties. 

JEROME CHARYN: TR had to enter politics in order to be able to change the world around him, but he never trusted politicians, and he suffered because of that. His own party banished him to the Vice Presidency, and started to moan when Roosevelt was sworn in as president after McKinley’s assassination.

Because Roosevelt trusted Taft to continue his policies [and Taft betrayed him], he had to run for a third term and create his own progressive—or Bull Moose—party. He might have beaten back the Democrats if he hadn’t been shot while making a speech one month before the election. Even with a bullet in him, the Bull Moose finished his speech.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Like so many strong public figures, TR showed his weakest self as a family man. After the death of his first wife, he willingly left his young daughter in his older sister’s charge so he could head for the Dakotas to play cowboy. Later in life, he remarries and has more children, but rarely mentions them, beyond referring to them as his “bunnies.” 

JEROME CHARYN: You may be seeing more Charyn, than TR there. Instead of my naming all of his children every single time, it was easier for me to call them “bunnies,” although TR himself used that term. He was a great father and a devoted husband, but somehow he had to blot out the image of his first wife (who died giving birth to his first child). Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t a man who allowed himself to live in the past.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: This is your latest novel written in the first-person, from the point of a view of a famous American—what some critics are calling “literary ventriloquism.” How did the experience of discovering the mind and voice of TR differ from your experiences with Emily Dickinson and Abraham Lincoln?

JEROME CHARYN: Discovering the voice of a particular subject is almost impossible. And only an idiot would attempt to do so. I’m not a ventriloquist, I’m a singer of songs, and I had to work very hard to find TR’s slightly stilted music and bring out the poetry that was within him. Lincoln and Emily Dickinson were a bit easier to do, because they had such distinctive voices. TR was more of a task. But you have to remember that ultimately I am always writing about myself. I am playing TR. He’s never my puppet. He owns me and I am his mischievous child.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: TR was a very special environmentalist, not only championing our national resources, but also respecting our nation’s indigenous peoples.

JEROME CHARYN: He wasn’t as perfect as you make him out to be. Sometimes he could have been a bit kinder to Native Americans, but as I said, he was a man of his time, and he learned to outgrow many of his limitations. He was – he still is – our first superhero.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Your writing throughout the novel is, I believe, some of your best work. The chapters about the Rough Riders are especially memorable. In the scene that describes the taking of San Juan Hill, you humanized TR and, to my mind, made him seem even more heroic.

JEROME CHARYN: His relationship with the Rough Riders helped define him. They were like his father’s newsboys, almost children he had protect. They became famous on account of him but held onto their flaws, and TR protected them for the rest of his life. He never failed a single one of his Rough Riders.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: I assume you are already working on a new book. What can you tell me?

JEROME CHARYN: I’m finishing a novel on J.D. Salinger. I wasn’t interested in his later life as a hermit in New Hampshire. But Salinger was a secret agent during WWII. He worked with the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). Salinger went through the war from Normandy to the freeing of the death camps, partly as a soldier and partly as a counter-intelligence man on a mission to erase every one of his steps.

(Jerome Charyn photo credit: Klaus Schoenwiese)

Jerome Charyn     


Steven Jay Griffel is the author of the Amazon #1 Bestseller Forty Years Later.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.