President Roosevelt points at a map of South America to highlight the area explored during the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition in Brazil.

President Roosevelt points at a map of South America to highlight the area explored during the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition in Brazil.

After Theodore Roosevelt lost his bid for a third term as president in 1912, he was bitterly criticized by former supporters. He split the Republican Party vote and was blamed for getting Democrat Woodrow Wilson elected. Roosevelt was desperate for a change of scenery. He jumped at an invitation to join an expedition to chart the ‘River of Doubt,’ deep in the Amazon rain forest. On the 100th anniversary of the journey, a new novel re-imagines the ill-fated trek Teddy and his son took in 1914 that almost left them dead. They are kidnapped by an Amazonian tribe that makes them hunt a ferocious beast, an event that haunts Roosevelt’s son forever.

Guests

  • Louis Bayard author of the best-selling novel, "The Pale Blue Eye." His other books include "The School of Night" and "Mr. Timothy," a New York Times Notable Book. He also teaches fiction writing at The George Washington University.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “Roosevelt’s Beast: A Novel” by Louis Bayard. All rights reserved.

An excerpt from Louis Bayard

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. One hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt escaped the partisan politics of Washington and joined an expedition to the Amazon. Roosevelt and his son Kermit set out to chart the mysterious River of Doubt deep in the wilds of the rainforest. A new historical novel reimagines the treacherous journey that almost killed them.

  • 11:07:23

    MS. DIANE REHMThe title of the book is "Roosevelt's Beast." And author Louis Bayard joins me in the studio. I welcome your questions and comments. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Louis Bayard, it's good to see you again.

  • 11:07:50

    MR. LOUIS BAYARDGreat to be back.

  • 11:07:52

    REHMYou know, I'd like to hear first about the reality of this story and what it was that took Theodore Roosevelt on this long trip and the fact that son Kermit went along.

  • 11:08:11

    BAYARDWent along, yes, he did. It happened exactly a hundred years ago, this year. It happened in 1914. And it was a group of men, Americans and Brazilians, who ventured into the darkest heart of the Amazonian jungle. Their mission was to track a river, a river that was known to locals as the River of Doubt, Rio da Dúvida, because nobody knew where it went or how long it took to get there.

  • 11:08:37

    BAYARDIt seemed to be known basically by its desire not to be known. So their mission was to track this river and put a name on it and get it into the map, into the gazettes of the world. And the leader of this expedition was a former president named Theodore Roosevelt, who, as you said earlier in your introduction, was two years out of a disastrous third attempt at the presidency, was looking for new realms to conquer, both physically and metaphorically.

  • 11:09:09

    BAYARDAnd the one thing he needed was help communicating to the other Brazilians on the expedition. And it just so happened that his son Kermit had been working in Brazil for the last two years for the Brazil Railway Company, was a gifted linguist, would master 12 languages before he died, and would be his interpreter.

  • 11:09:30

    REHMIt's interesting that Kermit apparently did not want to go.

  • 11:09:37

    BAYARDThat is true. That is true. They had also gone on safari together in Africa. They'd spent a year hunting across Africa. And you can see their game trophies in the Museum of Natural History in New York. He had wanted to go on that trip because that was a chance to be with his father whom he adored.

  • 11:09:53

    BAYARDBut in this case, this was not an expedition he wanted to be part of, in part because he was engaged to be married. And he was desperately longing to see this young woman who was over in Madrid. They had courted each other mostly by mail. And he was to be married in June, in just a few months, so he -- the idea of being stuck in this jungle or possibly not even making out of the jungle alive was appalling to him. But he soldiered along.

  • 11:10:19

    REHMAnd it was really his mother who pushed him to go with Theodore.

  • 11:10:27

    BAYARDYes. It was Edith Roosevelt who took him aside and said, in effect, look, I need you to go on this trip because I'm worried about your father. The Roosevelt patriarch at that point was into his 50s, well into his 50s, and she was concerned, rightly so, as it turned out, that this would be a pretty grueling expedition and that the experience might, in effect, might threaten his life, which it did. He nearly died over the course of it.

  • 11:10:51

    REHMSo you took this nugget of truth, this expedition, and you turned it into a whole fictional journey.

  • 11:11:03

    BAYARDYeah. My book kind of lifts off of the historical record. It starts out very much within the realm of history. And I should say right up front that if you want a definitive history on this expedition, Candice Millard's "The River of Doubt" is the place to start. She is -- she has done a beautiful job of giving us what really happened.

  • 11:11:18

    BAYARDMy interest was more spiritual, if I can use that word. When the first idea came to me, I was standing in a Borders not far from this studio. That's how long ago it was, when there were still Borders in the land. And I had this errant thought. Didn't Teddy Roosevelt go into the middle of the jungle and nearly die?

  • 11:11:37

    BAYARDAnd the question that popped in my head was not, what happened? Because I didn't, at that point, know. But what would that do to a man's heart, soul, mind, the experience of a so-called civilized man leaving civilization behind and going into this alien realm about which he knew nothing? How would that change his psyche, his view of things, his understanding of himself?

  • 11:11:59

    BAYARDAnd so that was the question from which this new idea, a sort of an alternative history that I've created, building on top of the original journey. But it lures them in effect, both Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt, into the jungle, puts them in the clutches of these local Indian tribe, and forces them to fend for themself and discover new things about each other.

  • 11:12:20

    REHMAnd new things about themselves that they have to confront. Again, take us back to the reality for a moment because you said both of them were almost killed.

  • 11:12:37

    BAYARDIndeed so. They had -- they were comically unprepared for this expedition. They had no idea what they were getting into. In fact, Teddy Roosevelt originally came to South America just to do a speaking tour. And then originally he was going to go down the Orinoco or some fairly well-traveled waterway. But a Brazilian official put the -- planted this idea in his head of going down the River of Doubt, finding where it led, and naming it and mapping it.

  • 11:13:02

    BAYARDAnd that idea was instantly thrilling to Teddy Roosevelt. So they ventured forth without a lot of preparation. Their crew included a guy named Father Zahm who was a social-climbing priest from America and who wanted to be carried around on a litter by the native oarsmen, alienated them all. There was another guy, a failed North Pole explorer who didn't do a much better job of exploring the jungle.

  • 11:13:27

    BAYARDThey were not prepared. They packed too much provisions. By the time they get there, they were already a week in. It was a huge overland journey that took weeks. Kermit developed boils on his hindquarters. It was a lot of pain going on. And then once they got to the river, they were set on -- strafed by mosquitoes, wasps, every possible insect known to man. They contracted infections, abscesses.

  • 11:13:50

    BAYARDMalaria was a constant concern. And most worrisome of all, they were starving to death which was an astonishment to them. They thought they were entering this cornucopia, right? We think of the Amazon as this -- the world's biosphere, the world's lungs. But, in fact, they could not find anything to eat, a few Brazil nuts, some fish here and there, and if they could catch a monkey, you know, that was dinner for three nights.

  • 11:14:11

    REHMAnd how overweight was Theodore Roosevelt at that time?

  • 11:14:16

    BAYARDHe was about 220 pounds on a 5'8" frame, so he was pretty heavy.

  • 11:14:21

    REHMSo to make that trek, carrying that weight, what about Kermit?

  • 11:14:27

    BAYARDKermit was a taller, thinner specimen, so he was probably in much better shape. He had been building bridges throughout Brazil, so he actually was in pretty good physical condition. Teddy Roosevelt lost a fourth of his body weight over the course of it. And when he came home to New York, people were shocked to see how changed his appearance was.

  • 11:14:46

    REHMHow many people overall were on the real journey?

  • 11:14:51

    BAYARDThat's a really good question. I would say -- I'm going to estimate it was about a couple dozen. Most of them were the oarsmen who were kind of the native Brazilians who were hired to, frankly, do all the heavy lifting.

  • 11:15:01

    REHMAnd how many people on this journey really knew what they were getting into?

  • 11:15:07

    BAYARDThat's a very good question. The other leader of the expedition was a man named Col. Rondon, Candido Rondon, and he had quite a bit of experience with the jungle. He had been laying telegraph wire across the country through miles and miles. So he had spent a lot of time in the jungle. And his men had been in harm's way quite a bit, shot at by Indians. He'd lost quite a few men over the years. So you'd think that he would have known, if anybody else had, that they were still not particularly prepared for what lay ahead of them in...

  • 11:15:36

    BAYARDLouis Bayard, and we're talking about his brand-new book. It's titled "Roosevelt's Beast." It is, of course, a novel. Would you like to read a passage for us from the book?

  • 11:15:56

    BAYARDSure. I'm going to read a section that gives us some idea of the rigors of this expedition, what they were going through. This is a point they're traveling downriver. Downriver is actually north in this case 'cause we're south of the equator. And this is a moment where Kermit is in his boat. "And from a hundred yards off came the old roar. In later life, he would find it impossible to explain just how dismal that sound was, how it shrank the soul. It was only water after all, water rushing down a terrace of rocks.

  • 11:16:34

    BAYARD"But to the men of the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition, that sound was the death of all hope because it meant rapids, rapids that were 90 times out of 100 too steep, too treacherous, too violent for their unwieldy dugouts, rapids that would force them to put their paddles and haul all the canoes to shore. Then the real work would begin. Fourteen men would ply themselves against the jungle's densest thickets, using their machetes to hack out a primitive road along the riverbank.

  • 11:17:01

    BAYARD"They would corrugate it with a couple of hundred logs. They would twine rope around their waists. Then with the aid of a block and tackle, they would portage every last one of those 2,500-pound canoes around the rapids and then winch them back down inch by inch into the water. In theory, it was an irritation, an obstacle. In practice, it was spine-cracking, muscle-rending, life-draining work conducted under the probing stinger of every insect in the Amazonian jungle.

  • 11:17:31

    BAYARD"The dangers were great. One misstep, and a man could crush a toe or a hand or tumble into the river or disturb a coral snake from its slumbers. Beneath their feet, the makeshift paths were worn down into ledges of sandstone. If the ledges grew deep enough, they would have to set the boats down and caulk the cracks and let them dry and hoist them up once more. This was not a labor of minutes. It was a labor of hours upon hours. It could take them three days just to travel 750 yards."

  • 11:17:59

    REHMWow.

  • 11:18:00

    BAYARDYeah.

  • 11:18:01

    REHMI mean, I assume that there obviously is some of your own...

  • 11:18:10

    BAYARDEmbellishments, some would say?

  • 11:18:11

    REHM...embellishments in this. But nevertheless, it must have been a grueling journey for everyone involved. Louis Bayard, and his new book is titled "Roosevelt's Beast." We'll tell you more about the fictionalized version when we come back. I look forward to hearing your questions, comments, and I want to ask about the pronunciation of Roosevelt.

  • 11:20:00

    REHM"Roosevelt's Beast" is the title of the book we're discussing by writer and best-selling author, Louis Bayard. He wrote "The Pale Blue Eye." His other books include "The School of Night" and "Mr. Timothy." And if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. You know, Louis, yesterday I received a long and very thoughtful email from a gentleman who said to me that during Theodore Roosevelt's time, his last was actually pronounced Roosevelt.

  • 11:20:57

    REHMAnd that it wasn't until FDR ran for office that he and Eleanor both decided to use the different pronunciation, Roosevelt. I have no way of knowing the actual truth there. I'm sure some of our listeners might want to chime in on that issue. But I gather you've not heard that?

  • 11:21:30

    BAYARDI have not heard that. But it's interesting that Eleanor Roosevelt would be the architect because she was born a Roosevelt herself. She was...

  • 11:21:36

    REHMIndeed.

  • 11:21:36

    BAYARDA lot of people don't know she was Teddy's niece.

  • 11:21:37

    REHMIndeed.

  • 11:21:39

    BAYARDAnd so, if she started calling her Roosevelt, then she must have ceded somehow to changing the pronunciation that was (inaudible).

  • 11:21:44

    REHMInteresting.

  • 11:21:45

    BAYARD...when she married cousin Franklin.

  • 11:21:46

    REHMNow, tell us about Kermit and who he was, what his standing was. What kind of a figure he was?

  • 11:21:58

    BAYARDHe was a very mysterious figure is what it boiled down to. And that, I think, it's why as a novelist I was so attracted to him. When I first conceiving this book, I thought, well, Teddy is going to be my protagonist because who better. You know, Teddy rides roughshod over everything that he's connected with. But the more I learned about Kermit, the more I was struck by the mystery of him. Here was this very gifted young man with a famous name, all the privileges, a Harvard education. He was, as I said, accomplished linguist.

  • 11:22:29

    REHMTalented.

  • 11:22:29

    BAYARDHe was talented. He was a writer. He was a very brave and decorated soldier. A hunter. An author. He had so many abilities, and yet he never quite found his way. And, in fact, gradually lost his way, spiraled down into depression, into alcoholism and ended his days, very sadly, in the middle of World War II in Anchorage, AK, which is actually where the book begins. So there is this core of mystery.

  • 11:22:56

    BAYARDWhat happened to this (word?) ? Even his own family didn't know what happened. And even his descendants can't tell you much about him. He's one of those figures that every family has that's shrouded in silence. You know, there's somebody you're not supposed to talk about. And you don't know why, but you're not supposed to talk about them. And he was one of those people. So he kind of disappeared into the history books for a while. So it was -- this is an act -- this book is an act of reclamation, bringing him back into the light of exploring the mystery of his life.

  • 11:23:24

    REHMDid he actually marry the woman to whom he was engaged?

  • 11:23:29

    BAYARDHe did. He married a young woman named Belle Willard, whose major shortcoming in the eyes of Kermit's parents was that she was a Democrat. But they overcame that obstacle and her father was a hotelier. In fact, those people from D.C. will recognize the name the Willard Hotel. He was the original owner of that hotel. So she came from wealth. And she was pretty and vivacious. And she seemed just the kind of a woman to draw a shy, recessive fellow like Kermit out of his shell. And for a while she did.

  • 11:24:00

    REHMAnd they did have children.

  • 11:24:02

    BAYARDThey did have children. They had, gosh, was it three, four children. Kermit Jr., I should say, has a claim to fame or notoriety, whichever you prefer, because he was the CIA agent who started the coup that put the shah of Iran on the throne of Iran. An act that had a long-term repercussions. All you have to do is watch the movie "Argo" to see how that worked out. But that's an interesting parallel because, of course, Teddy Roosevelt formed a revolution in Colombia just to get the state of Panama and to get his own -- get his canal.

  • 11:24:36

    REHMAll right, there is a fictional character in your book whose name is Luz. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

  • 11:24:46

    BAYARDI believe so, L-u-z. Yes.

  • 11:24:48

    REHMYes. Tell us about Luz.

  • 11:24:51

    BAYARDShe is a character they meet in the midst of the jungle. I should set this up a little bit first by saying the part where my book lifts off from reality is when Kermit and Teddy entered the jungle and meet the Cinta Larga Indians. Now, they are a real-life tribe. The expedition went right through their territory. They -- they knew those Indians were out there. They could hear them making threatening noises, but they didn't ever see them.

  • 11:25:20

    BAYARDAnd curiously enough, they were never attacked. Scholars there are still asking, why didn't the Cinta Larga attack them? Because, in effect, they were trespassing. They were probably the first white men this tribe had ever seen. And they could easily have picked off these travelers, these voyagers because they were so weakened from malnutrition and disease. And the Cinta Large had these fearsome bows and arrows that were nearly as tall as they were. So they were expert marksmen. But for some reason, they let them pass. In my book, they don't get off that easy.

  • 11:25:51

    REHMRight, right.

  • 11:25:52

    BAYARDIn my book, they kidnap Teddy and Kermit and they put them on the task of tracking down a beast. A beast that's been preying on both the natives and the local fauna that serve -- disembowels them, kind of thoroughly...

  • 11:26:10

    REHMYeah, this is where it gets a little gruesome.

  • 11:26:13

    BAYARDYeah, it's quite gruesome.

  • 11:26:13

    REHMYour imagination really took over.

  • 11:26:18

    BAYARDYeah, unfortunately -- fortunately or unfortunately, my imagination tends to do that. I tend to go to those dark places, Diane. I can't figure out why. I'm actually a pretty sunny person most of the time, maybe because I get it out on the page. But that's the beast that we're talking about initially is a beast, this creature that's out there in the darkness and that doesn't even leave tracks. So it's mysterious with even a hint of the supernatural.

  • 11:26:38

    BAYARDThat's the kind of world we're entering. Luz, the character we alluded to earlier, is a young woman who actually was the daughter of a missionary killed by the Cinta Larga seven years back. And she is now living a kind of half caste status in the Cinta Larga village. And she is, in effect, the interpreter between Kermit and Teddy and the Indians. She's trying to explain what's going on and in the end trying to help them.

  • 11:27:02

    REHMAnd as they are kidnapped, how are they held?

  • 11:27:08

    BAYARDThey are held -- well, they're basically taken to the Cinta Larga village and just by being in the middle of the jungle, they have no idea how to go back to the river. There's no way of getting back. They have -- anyone who's been to a jungle, it's very hard to find your way unless you know them, you live there. So they're, in effect, trapped there. And un exchange for their freedom, they have to track down this beast. Now, of course, they're big game hunters from way back. They've spent that year in Africa. They've hunted.

  • 11:27:34

    REHMAnd they are assuming they're looking for a huge beast.

  • 11:27:38

    BAYARDA huge beast, yeah, with fearsome teeth and claws and all those things. And in the past they've shot lions and elephants and leopards and jaguars. But this is not the beast they're expecting. And, in fact, this beast winds up becoming something that lives with them and even inside them by the end of the -- not to give any spoiler. That's not a spoiler. But it winds up having a psychological component. And the book itself is like a psychological thriller built off of the historical record.

  • 11:28:08

    REHMIndeed. You include Kermit's Uncle Elliott in the book. How come?

  • 11:28:16

    BAYARDBecause there's such an eerie parallel between Elliott and Kermit. Just to frame this, Elliott was Teddy's brother, his younger brother and the father of Eleanor Roosevelt. So, we, once again, bring Eleanor back into the picture. And, in fact, she has a cameo role in this book. I was happy to drop her in there for a couple pages. Elliott was very much like Kermit in that he was gifted in so many ways. He was extremely polished.

  • 11:28:41

    BAYARDHe was actually considered more promising than Teddy. Teddy was clumsier and more awkward and burlier. And Elliott was suave and had great social graces and was considered just so appealing and affable. And, again, like Kermit, lost his way. He married, of course, Eleanor's mother but philandered, had open affairs with mistresses, fathered children out of wedlock and spiraled down.

  • 11:29:08

    BAYARDIn fact, he didn't even make it out of his 30s before he embarked on the same -- before he tried to kill himself and eventually died not long after. The same self-destructive path of Kermit follows. And there was a concern even while Kermit was alive that he was following Elliott's path. So Elliott becomes, over the course of the book, the spectral figure and the kind of cautionary example for Kermit. You know, this is the path you can take, you might be doomed to take. And so, Kermit is both resisting the example and drawn to it at the same time.

  • 11:29:41

    REHMOf course, depression is almost a character in this book, and something that you yourself acknowledged that you'd suffer.

  • 11:29:55

    BAYARDYes. I mean, like millions of Americans, I suffer from chronic depression. I've written about it quite a bit. And it's not -- obviously in this day and age it's nothing to be ashamed of. We just kind of -- we live with it, we roll with it. And that's what I really do is I roll with it. But we have -- we're better equipped to do that.

  • 11:30:12

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:30:12

    BAYARDThese days than they were then. There was one way of medicating yourself in those days, and that was through alcohol. And I totally understand why someone like Kermit, someone like Elliott would embrace that path because for a few minutes or an hour or two hours it frees you from this darkness. It's funny, I mentioned the title of the book to some friends and they said, oh, is that like "Churchill's Black Dog"?

  • 11:30:37

    BAYARDAnd it's the same idea, the metaphor, the same metaphor for depression. That was Churchill's metaphor. And it's the same idea of being stalked by something that you don't have control over but that creates a darkness inside you, around you. And that's an experience that is familiar to anyone who suffered some depression.

  • 11:30:55

    REHMDo you think that your own depression figured into how you wrote about Kermit?

  • 11:31:04

    BAYARDI think it did because I recognized in him a secret sharer. And I felt like I could get inside him, which is what a novelist needs to feel about any protagonist. You need to feel like you can get in there and figure out what's going on. There was a revelatory moment when I was going through Kermit's diaries, which are in the Library of Congress. His diary of the expedition.

  • 11:31:23

    BAYARDI held it in my hands, which is thrilling for a history geek like me to do. I had expected fronds to come out and dead mosquitoes, but it's just this very little notebook, which he wrote in with pencil. Very reticent, just by the book. You know, this happened, this happened, all that wasps, you know, reticence. But there's one day he wrote these words, one night, he wrote, Kat very sad, Kat most extremely sad. Kat was the name he gave himself. So he's describing...

  • 11:31:51

    REHMKat?

  • 11:31:51

    BAYARDK-A-T, yes. Who knows why, who knows why, but that was his nickname for himself. So he was describing just the height of despair that he was feeling in that moment. And, of course, we can say part of that is because he's separated from the woman he loves, Belle. He wants to be with her. Part of it could be just the dread that they've gone in too far that they'll never get out of this jungle again.

  • 11:32:11

    BAYARDBut I think part of it was, he -- inimical to his nature and it does seem to be a genetic predisposition that jumps from generation to generation. So Elliott had it. Elliott had a son named Hall who also suffered from depression, alcoholism. So it's a very clear pattern, almost like the hemophilia you see in European royalty. We get this pattern from generation to generation.

  • 11:32:31

    REHMLouis Bayard and his book is titled, "Roosevelt's Beast." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Pardon me. One further question before we open the phones. What happened to the rest of the group after Teddy and Kermit were kidnapped?

  • 11:33:00

    BAYARDThey are basically waiting by the river, waiting for them to be returned. And in my, again, alternative history, they are just -- they can't -- they don't know where they are and they can't begin to pursue them because they would get lost in the jungle. In fact, the original expedition was under strict orders never to leave -- never to go into the tunnel.

  • 11:33:16

    REHMNever to separate.

  • 11:33:17

    BAYARDYes, never to separate. Stay close with the other ones. So my little alternative scenario begins when they in fact ignored those orders because they're trying to capture a monkey, a spider monkey for dinner. They want to eat something real. So they go after this monkey and it turns out to be a trap and they have to fight for their lives.

  • 11:33:38

    REHMAll right, we're going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Sue in Middleville, MI. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:33:53

    SUEHi.

  • 11:33:54

    REHMHi there.

  • 11:33:55

    SUEI believe that since Roosevelt, which everyone calls both presidents that I know of, everybody. I wasn't leaving during Teddy's presidency. (unintelligible) in English should be pronounced, and especially with upper class English, should be pronounced Roosevelt. And because if you think about it, R-o-o is (word?) in English. And the incorrect pronunciation was probably adopted because of the fact that everybody called him that.

  • 11:34:42

    SUEMy mother was a schoolteacher and she was born in 1913 and she -- I'm sorry, 1911. And she actually pronounced Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt her whole life. And everybody that I knew pronounced the names Roosevelt.

  • 11:35:10

    REHMAll right, thanks for your call. I think we could begin a little debate on this. But let's leave it to that.

  • 11:35:23

    BAYARDLet's stay agnostic on the question.

  • 11:35:25

    REHMYeah, exactly. All right, let's go to Lisa in Louisville, KY. Hi there, you're on the air.

  • 11:35:34

    LISAHi, Diane, thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:35:36

    REHMSurely.

  • 11:35:36

    LISAI would like to know how much, if any, influence Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" has played in the author's life if indeed he's read it, which he probably has and also the novel "Lord of the Flies." Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is my personal favorite book of all time and I would just -- I'm getting some similarities between that and the book and the travel on the river and also between "Lord of the Flies" and the beast.

  • 11:36:04

    REHMAll right, thanks for calling.

  • 11:36:06

    BAYARDWell, you are right to get those similarities. They were very much in the forefront of my brain from the start. In fact, my little elevator speech for this book when it first started out was, hey, it's Teddy's "Heart of Darkness." Come on, right? And then it became Kermit's "Heart of Darkness." But, in fact, that is a seminal book for me. Conrad's book is an extraordinary achievement and it's impossible.

  • 11:36:26

    BAYARDThe caller is right to send anybody down a river into a jungle without having Joseph Conrad on your shoulder the whole way. One of the things I love about that book is how open-ended it is. The famous line, of course, is "The horror, the horror," which most people now here Marlon Brando. Conrad never tells us what the horror is. That's an open-ended statement. And Conrad through the course of this book sort of dances around that central mystery, what is that horror.

  • 11:36:50

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:36:50

    BAYARDWhat made Kurtz go mad? And the open question is, was it something out there or was the darkness already in him waiting to be tapped, waiting to be harvested? So...

  • 11:37:02

    REHMGreat book.

  • 11:37:02

    BAYARDIt's a great book.

  • 11:37:03

    REHMWhat about "Lord of the Flies"?

  • 11:37:05

    BAYARDYou know, that wasn't so conscious of an influence. But, again, it's hard to sort of maroon people and see their worst instincts come out without bringing that into the conversation. But definitely Conrad.

  • 11:37:16

    REHMLouis Bayard. And his book is titled, "Roosevelt's Beast." When come back, I'll ask him to read a bit more, take your calls and questions. Stay with us.

  • 11:39:59

    REHMAnd welcome back as Louis Bayard talks about his brand-new novel "Roosevelt's Beast." It's based on actually the trip down the Amazon that Theodore and his son Kermit Roosevelt took two years after he lost his third run at the presidency. He wanted to get away. And Teddy Roosevelt's wife and Kermit's mother insisted that Kermit go along.

  • 11:40:43

    REHMIt was not the most pleasant of journeys. But Louis Bayard has really, really capitalized on that and accentuated, if you will, some of the troubles that he incurred. And Jonathan in Rockville, Md. says, "Where do you draw the line between history and fiction?" You've taken on one of the most outsized figures in American history. So how free did you feel in adding the beast to the historical record?

  • 11:41:27

    BAYARDI actually felt a giddy sense of freedom in adding to the historical record. Maybe that means I have no ethics. I don't know many novelists who do when it comes to getting a story down on paper. I think that line that Jonathan is talking about defines itself in a way. So I follow the historical account through a good chunk of this book, through the first part of it and then come back to it at the end.

  • 11:41:48

    BAYARDAnd then when I get to the point where I want to find something else out, that history can't tell us -- and history can tell us so much, but only so much -- and that to me is where the novelist properly steps in and says, okay, I have this mystery here, and I can make an imaginative leap.

  • 11:42:04

    BAYARDI can forge some empathic bridge. And I can come up with my own solution. It won't be definitive. It won't be accepted by the historical community. It'll just be my story for what goes on. And that to me is the kick out of doing this in the first place. It's why I'm a novelist and not a historian 'cause I get to make stuff up after a while.

  • 11:42:21

    REHMAll right. So read for us from one of those parts you have made up.

  • 11:42:28

    BAYARDGreat. This is actually our first introduction to the beast. This is Kermit and the Colonel -- he's called the Colonel, by the way, through the whole book 'cause that's how he liked to be called, Col. Roosevelt -- are having their situation explained to them. And they're hearing for the first time about this beast. "Nothing in the tribal lore had prepared Cinta Larga for this terror. It came on light feet, and its first victims were toads and side-necked turtles, plovers, wood ibises. The carnage was extreme, but tightly contained, not yet outside the realm of experience.

  • 11:43:02

    BAYARD"But in short order, the terror grew bolder, hungrier, capuchins, hawks, anteaters, all snatched from their perches and killed, savaged in a way the Cinta Larga had never seen. Not just eaten, these creatures, but disemboweled, emptied with only the head left to testify to what they had been. Surely, a thing capable of doing such carnage was no mere animal. Surely, it was a terrible spirit clothed in teeth and claws, losing its vengeance on the jungle. The killings went on, a sloth, a caiman snatched from the river's very clasp.

  • 11:43:37

    BAYARD"And still the Cinta Larga made their sacrifices, praying that they might alone, of all the jungle's inhabitants, be spared. One evening, one of their girls, no more than six years on this Earth, wandered off to collect cacaos. She was found the next morning, scarcely to be recognized. Since then, no one had dared to walk abroad in darkness. And even daylight held a new horror, for who could say when the beast would strike next."

  • 11:44:00

    REHMMm.

  • 11:44:01

    BAYARD"Even the men were not safe. Only two nights before, one of the tribe's strongest and fiercest warriors was seized in the very act of keeping watch. They found him the next morning in the vines and brush, so thoroughly consumed that there was no piecing him back together. They left his remains on the spot. And no Cinta Larga would walk there now for fear of meeting the dead man's angry shadow. The beast lived and walked and hungered. Most terrible of all, it went unseen. No one, nothing had ever glimpsed it and lived."

  • 11:44:33

    REHMWhoa.

  • 11:44:34

    BAYARDYeah. This is serious stuff, Diane.

  • 11:44:37

    REHMYes, it is serious stuff. All right. What -- in your imagination, what was it that brought forward that image of a creature that disembowels and leaves only a head for recognition?

  • 11:45:01

    BAYARDThere was, of course, the central mystery of it, of something that can't be seen, that can't be grasped exactly because it leaves no tracks. It leaves no evidence of itself. We know it only by its acts and by the damage it leaves. And I like that idea of -- it's the Conrad idea of the darkness, the evil, if you like, being out there but not quite graspable. We only know it by what it does.

  • 11:45:28

    BAYARDAnd then, of course, when we talk about the depression angle, the metaphor, that hollowing out, which is, of course, familiar to anyone who goes through depression, that sense of being emptied out and finding nothing below, the metaphor that actually helped give rise to this particular beast came from T.S. Eliot, "The Skull beneath the Skin." And in several places, we see people's faces, the skin literally evaporating, being scissored off of their faces, that sense of mortality underlying everything that we do. It's dark. It's really dark.

  • 11:46:04

    REHMIt's dark. All right. Let's go now to John in Jacksonville, Fla. Hi. You're on the air.

  • 11:46:16

    JOHNHi.

  • 11:46:17

    REHMHi there. Go right ahead, please.

  • 11:46:20

    JOHNAll right. Thanks for taking my call, Diane. It's nice to be on the show.

  • 11:46:24

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:46:24

    JOHNI just had a question for Mr. Bayard because he said, in the book -- or in the journal rather, he read Kermit was referring to himself as Kat, it sounded like, K-A-T. Could this possibly be -- I was just wondering, was it Kermit and Theodore or him and his father maybe together, that he was referring to them as, like, an acronym? And...

  • 11:46:47

    BAYARDThat's...

  • 11:46:47

    JOHN...if not, what did you -- what do you think the purpose was or reason he would refer to himself in a different way? And I'll take my question off the air. Thank you.

  • 11:46:56

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:46:57

    BAYARDThank you. That's very interesting.

  • 11:46:58

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:46:58

    BAYARDI had not thought of that, that theory, Kermit and Theodore. That is very interesting. I tend to think, based on what we know of Teddy, based on his vigor, his optimism, that I don't see him succumbing to despair in the same way that Kermit did. So the fact that it's written in singular most -- Kat most decidedly sad. To me, that's spoken in -- well, you're right. There's no verb there, isn't it? Kat very sad. That's a very interesting theory. I'm now pondering it.

  • 11:47:25

    REHMYeah, absolutely.

  • 11:47:26

    BAYARDI'm now pondering it. I can't see them both giving way to despair. In fact, I think one of the reasons that Teddy, for instance, never spoke of his brother, after his brother died, Elliott -- never mentioned him in his autobiography -- was that he had to have thrown away life. And to Teddy Roosevelt, that was the great gift.

  • 11:47:47

    BAYARDAnd he was one of those people who packed four lives into one. And his day was just filled from the morning -- the moment he woke up to the moment he ended. So I don't see him giving way in the same way that Kermit did, in part because it sounds like -- it seems like he didn't have that genetic predisposition.

  • 11:48:03

    REHMAll right. To Greg in Orlando, Fla. Hi. You're on the air.

  • 11:48:09

    GREGGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:48:11

    REHMHi.

  • 11:48:12

    GREGThank you for taking my call.

  • 11:48:13

    REHMSure.

  • 11:48:14

    GREGI just had a comment that I read "The River of Doubt" last December while on a cruise going a thousand miles up the Amazon to Manaus. And it made the book extraordinarily vivid. And I look forward to reading Mr. Bayard's book. Thank you.

  • 11:48:35

    REHMGood. Glad you called. Thanks a lot. And clearly that is a book that you enjoyed as well.

  • 11:48:44

    BAYARDVery much. Very much so. As I said before, that is really the best place to go for the nonfiction account of what happened. And, in fact, it's such a riveting story in itself that part of me wondered, wow, do I really need to build on top of that?

  • 11:48:56

    REHMHmm.

  • 11:48:56

    BAYARDIs that gilding the lily? And then I decided, yeah, to answer the questions I want to ask, I need to take this someplace new. But you certainly can get plenty of entertainment from Candice Millard's book as well.

  • 11:49:07

    REHMIndeed. This novel and a couple of your others really begin to delve into that father-son relationship. Being a parent is tough.

  • 11:49:26

    BAYARDYes.

  • 11:49:27

    REHMBeing the child is tough. But it's particularly interesting for you.

  • 11:49:37

    BAYARDYeah. And it's something I'm not always been conscious of. I keep coming back to that theme without even intending to. But it keeps happening. I think partly it's 'cause I'm a father, I guess. And that's the job that kicks my butt the most, Diane. It's the job I never seem to get right. So maybe on the page, I can sort of figure it out. But also, yeah, I'm a son.

  • 11:49:57

    BAYARDI wrote my first historical novel, "Mr. Timothy," in a ferment of tears really because I was losing my father at the same time as I was adopting my first son. So you had every extreme of emotion kind of compressed into that. And so the relationship between Tim Cratchit, the hero of that book, and his father -- his dead father, Bob -- is really the central emotional thread of that.

  • 11:50:18

    REHMThat's out of Dickens.

  • 11:50:20

    BAYARDIt is out of Dickens, yes. I decided that I wanted to do something, actually, something bad to Tiny Tim. I will just say that I never -- I love Dickens. That's why I wrote the book, but I've never liked Tiny Tim. So I thought I...

  • 11:50:31

    REHMReally?

  • 11:50:31

    BAYARDYeah. I just...

  • 11:50:32

    REHMWhy?

  • 11:50:33

    BAYARDOh, he's this little creep. I don't know. It's just he just -- stop with the God bless us, everyone, already. No. I just felt he's a one-dimensional saintly character.

  • 11:50:44

    REHMHmm.

  • 11:50:44

    BAYARDAnd I thought, well, let's see if we can put some dimension on him. Then we muss him up and see what happens. So that's -- the book came out of that.

  • 11:50:50

    REHMYou know, I don't think the parent-child relationship ever, ever fully works itself out.

  • 11:51:01

    BAYARDI don't think so. I think you're right.

  • 11:51:02

    REHMNo matter how old your -- I have a son of 53 and a daughter about to be 50. And, you know, I think of all the things I've done wrong and how I wish I could begin all over again. Do you feel that way?

  • 11:51:23

    BAYARDAll the time, every -- every day. And, of course, every day, I think of something I'd love to tell my dad. I would love to tell him that I'm on this show, that I would love to have him listening right now, and talk to him afterward. There's no day that goes by I don't miss him. And he was an aspiring writer himself.

  • 11:51:38

    BAYARDSo I feel like I'm kind of living on his dream as well. But you're right. Nothing ever gets completely resolved. I think it would have been particularly hard for someone like Kermit. Imagine having Teddy as your father. I just can't imagine having that example to live up to. This is a guy who was shot by an assassin in Milwaukee.

  • 11:51:54

    REHMAnd still had the bullet.

  • 11:51:55

    BAYARDYeah, still has the bullet. Yeah, it went five inches into his body, lodged against his ribcage, narrowly missed his heart. He went to the -- he kept a speaking engagement, strode to the platform, pulled open his jacket, the blood streaming down his chest, you know, very dramatic moment -- takes more than that to kill a bull moose. That was his big line in the moment. And I think, well, that's kind of inspiring. I think, God, imagine having to follow that act, you know, on to the stage.

  • 11:52:17

    REHMReally.

  • 11:52:18

    BAYARDVery, very tough act to follow.

  • 11:52:20

    REHMBut did the bullet ever get removed?

  • 11:52:23

    BAYARDNo. It stayed in there. It stayed in there for the rest of his life. The surgeons decided it would do more harm to bring...

  • 11:52:28

    REHMDamage, yeah, try to get it out.

  • 11:52:29

    BAYARD...get it out than to leave it there, so it was there till he died.

  • 11:52:32

    REHMBut, as you said, Kermit truly adored his father.

  • 11:52:37

    BAYARDHe did. He did. They all adored their father. And one of the wonderful things I learned in the course of researching the book was what a devoted father he was. There's a collection of letters he wrote to his children. And these letters are just charming reading because it's not just the usual dad lecturing, you know, shape up and then keep pegging away.

  • 11:52:56

    BAYARDBut he was sincerely interested in them. And he recognized them, their individual qualities, and he played with them when they're kids. He got down in the mud and played with them. He did hikes. And he turned the White House hallways into an obstacle course. He liked nothing better than playing with his kids.

  • 11:53:11

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And now let's go to Edward in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Hi. You're on the air.

  • 11:53:23

    EDWARDGood morning. Enjoy the show.

  • 11:53:25

    REHMHi. Good. Go right ahead, sir.

  • 11:53:29

    EDWARDI was wondering if the author used Dan Simmons as an inspiration. One of his books, "The Terror," seems very similar with the -- based on the John Franklin expedition in the Arctic and the shadowy beast haunting the crew.

  • 11:53:45

    BAYARDYeah. I know the book you're talking about. I haven't read it. I read another one of his books, inspired by Drood -- Edwin Drood with Wilkie Collins and Dickens as the protagonist. But I know his work in a limited way. And I've -- it certainly seems similar to the kind of thing I do, which is building off historical record and then putting some kind of terror on top of that.

  • 11:54:07

    BAYARDThe Franklin expedition was this doomed attempt to get to the North Pole that ended with pretty much everyone dying and -- as so many of those journeys did, especially the English journeys. There was something quite noble to them about failing these things.

  • 11:54:19

    REHMIs the idea of a beast something that goes right along with resilient folklore?

  • 11:54:29

    BAYARDThere are some elements in Brazilian folklore. There's a mythical figure called (word?) which is name-checked by one of the characters in the book. And he is supposedly a protector of the forest, of the jungle, and particularly is resentful of hunters. So he will make backward tracks, and he will confuse and addle anybody who's coming into the forest to hunt. He's sort of like an early Greenpeace deity, you know. I think he's just putting a protective mantle around the forest to keep men like the Roosevelts from terrorizing it. Yeah.

  • 11:54:59

    REHMSo in the end, Louis, you've written this wonderful part-history, part-mystery. How do you categorize it?

  • 11:55:11

    BAYARDIt's hard to categorize in one way, I have to say.

  • 11:55:14

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:55:14

    BAYARDI work in hybrid, so I start with history. And then I go off from it. So, you know, I wrote a book about Edgar Allen Poe called "The Pale Blue Eye." It focuses on the six months he spent at West Point, which was historical record. We know he was there. We know almost nothing about what happened while he was there.

  • 11:55:31

    BAYARDSo I created a mystery in which he is one of the detectives. And, of course, he was the creator of the detective story, so it's a kind of homage. As so many of my books are, they're homages to my precursors, my betters, in many cases. I have no problem in saying that Joseph Conrad has -- is better than me. But I enjoy kind of walking in their footsteps.

  • 11:55:53

    REHMDid you actually get to talk with descendants?

  • 11:55:59

    BAYARDI did. I talked to Kermit Roosevelt's great-grandson who is also Kermit Roosevelt. He goes by Kim. I guess they all go by Kim.

  • 11:56:07

    REHMHmm.

  • 11:56:07

    BAYARDThey were nicknamed that after the Rudyard Kipling novel 'cause Kipling was a friend of the original Kermits.

  • 11:56:10

    REHMHmm. Hmm.

  • 11:56:12

    BAYARDHe -- the current Kermit is a law professor at Penn and also a novelist writer. So he was very sympathetic to the enterprise. And I was concerned about that because I thought, God, are the Roosevelts -- are the Roosevelts, whatever they call themselves -- are they going to be...

  • 11:56:27

    REHMOffended, yeah.

  • 11:56:28

    BAYARD...offended by what I've done? 'Cause I've taken quite a lot of liberties with their ancestor. But Kermit III, I guess he's now, was never anything but supportive. He wrote a blurb for the book. And I like to think that if a Roosevelt does read this that they'll see that I had great respect for Kermit and for Teddy Roosevelt.

  • 11:56:46

    REHMIndeed. Louis Bayard, and the book is titled "Roosevelt's Beast." It is a novel. Congratulations.

  • 11:56:57

    BAYARDThank you, Diane.

  • 11:56:58

    REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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