My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
“Obliged to admit that for the first time in my life I feel myself in the middle of a psychological collapse.”Albert Camus was in Montevideo, nearing the end of a lecture tour of South America, when he entered those words into his diary. American Journals, chronicling Camus’ 1946 voyage to North America and his 1949 visit to South America, shows a humane soul with a sharp mind who’s teetering on the brink, one minute penning astute observations on human suffering; the next – perfunctory, and seemingly overwhelmed almost to the point of paralysis by the simplest, most mundane, obstacles.The North American trip in spring of 1946 came four years after publication of The Stranger, and mere months before Camus would complete The Plague. The diary begins on board a ship as Camus struggles with an ocean voyage and girds himself against odd and intrusive fellow passengers. By the end of the crossing, he’s figured them out.”Everyone prides himself on being elegant and knowing how to live. The performing dog aspect. But some of them are opening up.”On such extended voyages as these, false fronts fade after a while and forced impressions begin to wear away. One’s fellow-passengers begin to reveal their true nature, or at the very least one catches on to their facades.Once in New York, Camus observes the many sides of the American character. After noting how funeral homes and private cemeteries operate (“you die and we do the rest”), Camus comments that “one way to know a country is to know how people die there. Here, everything is anticipated.”Of American generosity, Camus has nothing but admiration. While he was giving a lecture, someone had made off with the box office takings which were to have gone to a children’s charity. When the audience finds out, a spectator proposes that everyone give the same amount upon exiting as they gave upon entering. In fact, they gave much more.”Typical of American generosity,”Camus lauds. “Their hospitality, their cordiality are like that too, spontaneous and without affectation. It’s what’s best in them.”Camus travels through New England and on up to Quebec. He also visits Philadelphia and Washington D.C. By the time he’s back on ship for the return voyage, he’s begun to lose interest in his fellow passengers, and his musings reveal his frustration and hopelessness:”Sad to still feel so vulnerable. In 25 years I’ll be 57. 25 years then to create a body of work and to find what I’m looking for. After that: old age and death.”In fact, Albert Camus would die 14 years later in a car crash. But not before yet again braving the Atlantic – this time for a lecture tour of Brazil, Argentina and Chile.Amusingly, Camus provides loose sketches of fellow shipboard passengers. It seems like a mystery or intrigue novel or film noir just waiting to be written – especially as this was 1949. If anything is frustrating about the journals, it is simply that one wishes that Camus would flesh out his often skeletal thoughts.”Woke up with a fever.” I tried to calculate just how many of Camus’ shipboard entries began with “Woke up with a fever” or some variation. But I lost count. I’m now wondering whether a shipboard memoir could even exist without that sentence. Still, despite his physiological reaction to the voyage, or perhaps even because of it, Camus is deeply enamored of the sea in all its raging power – often remaining transfixed by it. It is “a call to life and an invitation to death,” and leaves him with “inexplicably profound sadness.”His exhaustion and his ocean fixation clash on one occasion, when he enters this into his diary: “Too tired to describe the sea today.”Arriving in Rio, Camus notes: “Never have I seen wealth and poverty so insolently intertwined.” Finding himself in the company of a Brazilian poet, Camus offers this scathing assessment:”Enormous, indolent, folds of flesh around his eyes, his mouth hanging open, the poet arrives. Anxieties, a sudden movement, then he spills himself into an easy chair and stays there a little while, panting. He gets up, does a pirouette and falls back down into the easy chair.”The corpulent poet later points out “a character from one of your novels” – a thin, gun-toting government minister. But Camus silently decides that it is the poet himself who is in fact a “character.”In the hills outside of Rio, Camus is taken to a macumba – a trance-inducing spiritual dance where the dancers attempt to arrive at a state of ecstasy. Camus, hanging back and observing with his arms crossed, was told to uncross his arms so as not to impede the descent of the spirits. In the end, Camus yearns for fresh air rather than heat, dust, smoke and writhing bodies: “I like the night and sky better than the gods of men.”After Rio, Camus travels to Recife (A map somewhere in the book would be nice. My edition has none). He describes it as Florence of the tropics. (Although while in Recife, he did “wake up with the grippe and a fever.”)Then it was off to Bahia: “In bed. Fever. Only the mind works on, obstinately. Hideous thought. Unbearable feeling of advancing step by step toward an unknown catastrophe which will destroy everything around me and in me.”For every journal entry soaked in fever and depression, there’s one that lifts you up. Camus writes of a radio program in Sao Paulo where people can go on air to make a public entreaty. An unemployed man went on the air one day and said that since his wife had abandoned him, he was looking for someone to temporarily take care of his child. Five minutes after the program ended, another man came into the station, half-asleep, half-dressed. His wife had heard the plea, woke her husband, and dispatched him to go get the child.After Sao Paulo, it was off to Montevideo, then Buenos Aires, across to Santiago, Chile, then back to Brazil and then home.A slight volume, American Journals nevertheless reveals a fragile man at the height of his fame, who can still, through all of his medical and psychological problems, offer observations which are astute and often amusing, and it offers some personal context to the ideas that would show up in his later works of fiction.
“Biographies are but clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man himself cannot be written” — Mark Twain
Born on the mountaintop in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree
Kil’t him a b’ar when he was only three
Day-Ve, Day-Ve Crockett! King of the Wild Frontier!…
I know this song, and you probably do to, and yet I can’t quite say why or how. I think for some reason it started at least a couple decades ago in my grandparents’ house, probably some Disney family movie night, or maybe I heard it by chance out in the ether somewhere and it just settled into my auditory cortex, like a disc in a jukebox waiting for the drop of memory’s coin.
What’s strange (to me, at least) is that even though I know this ditty decently enough, I couldn’t really tell you much about the eponymous character it unabashedly celebrates. If pressed, I could probably make something up on the spot based on the hyperbolic verses, but what good is that? And why can’t I get it out of my head now that it’s on my mind? It might be that Disney’s myth machine was more effective than I’d previously suspected. Apparently the song was dashed off in about 20 minutes, because Boss Disney needed something to get the kids’ heads bobbing along as the opening credits rolled. Or, even more disturbing, it could be that Tennessee Ernie Ford is as much a crackerjack Americana propagandist as Woody Guthrie, Stephen Foster, or Francis Scott Key.
I’m grateful to Michael Wallis, author of the new biography David Crockett: Lion of the West, for giving me a bit of my childhood back. He was inspired to write his book by a similar experience, albeit from a perspective a little more specific and closer to the source:
“My first exposure to this inimitable American icon came, and I can vividly recall the date, on the frosty night of December 15, 1954 … The ABC television network had just aired “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter”, the first of three episodes produced by Walt Disney for his studio’s then new series, which had premiered two months earlier … I was a goner … I headed straight to my room, where I pored over the World Book Encyclopedia entry for David Crockett, dreaming of the swashbuckler with a proclivity for dangerous behavior, a most commendable quality for any red-blooded American kid.”
I’d like to say that Wallis’s biography dispels the mythology which surrounds David Crockett once and for all, separating fact from fiction, the legend from the man, but that wouldn’t be quite right. Wallis is a diligent, scrupulous historian; he’s got his facts straight, he knows true from false, he’s done his homework. He demonstrates a real love and understanding of the backwoods through which David Crockett roamed and rambled. This is all to the good, of course.
It is also significant, however, that Wallis doesn’t seem to restrain his lyrical impulses when setting up his subject as early as the opening chapter: “David Crockett believed in the wind and in the stars. This son of Tennessee could read the sun, the shadows, and the wild clouds full of thunder.” He continues in this vein, describing how Crockett knew the names of plants, trees, constellations, and treated the forests of Tennessee as both a cathedral and refuge. I don’t mean to be crude or dismissive, but the voice I hear is more akin to the wizened, dreamy-eyed cowboy in The Big Lebowski than what I’d expect from a historian. Wallis isn’t telling tall tales, but his history comes across as a sort of amiable yarn with footnotes and period illustrations. Romanticizing the subject at hand is a consistently close call. I’m still not sure, given the subject, how much it matters.
Wallis points out early on that Crockett was most definitely not “born on a mountain top” and only started wearing his iconic coonskin cap when he needed to boost his public visibility and stay politically relevant. Literally turn the page, and next thing we know our hero is describing mortal combat with a giant angry black bear, alone, at 39 years of age, soaked to the bone and nearly freezing to death on a January night near Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee:
“’Imade a lounge (sic) with my long knife, and fortunately stuck him right through the heart’, he later explained … Exhausted from the struggle, he calmed his pack of panting hounds and managed to pull the bear from the crevice in the frozen ground where they had fought. After butchering the animal, he tried to kindle a fire but could find nothing dry enough to burn. His moccasins, buckskin breeches, and hunting shirt were frozen to his numb body and he knew that unless he kept moving he would die. ‘So I got up, and hollered awhile, and then I would jump up and down with all my might and throw myself into all sorts of motions … But all this wouldn’t do; for my blood was now getting cold, and the chills coming all over me. I was so tired, too, that I could hardly walk; but I thought I would do the best I could to save my life, and then, if I died, nobody would be to blame.’”
Wallis adds a qualifying footnote suggesting that this story might be one of Crockett’s much-beloved, enduringly exaggerated tales of derring-do, which were at least half of the reason the good-natured, generous Crockett seemed so well-liked. It needn’t trouble us very much if this particular tale is exaggerated. Crockett was unquestionably a master hunter of all manner of wildlife for sport and survival. If the above story is untrue, it could fairly stand in for any number of actual pretty dangerous encounters which might have gone unmentioned, if for no other reason than sheer repetition. Such battles to the death were rather common and necessary for a woodsman like himself. There’s not much reason to start interrogating him on the bear killing issue, either. Crockett soberly mused that he’d killed at least a hundred bears in one year’s professional hunting, including 47 in one month. This would be annoying coming from someone who hadn’t actually kept his fledgling family alive for much longer than he preferred by hunting and killing wild bears for food, clothing, insulation, and so on. His raw courage warrants a bit of blarney, if blarney there must be. I shudder to think what I would have eaten, if anything, had I been born in 1786.
And that’s why it seems that David Crockett has become a mythological figure in American history. He was a survivor. I hate to pile mythology on mythology here, but there’s some Huckleberry Finn at play in his story. Crockett, like Huck, gets his start at the economic and emotional mercy of a drunken, hapless pap who can’t get his act together long enough to offer his resourceful, loyal son any leg up in the world besides learning independence and self-sufficiency pretty darn quick. It could also be that this theme contributes to quite a bit of other American mythology. As a culture, we do tend to venerate the innocence that overcomes initial squalor. This theme has its place in early colonial literature and persists in the work and legend of Whitman, Thoreau, Frost, and the Beat Generation on into the political sphere. Anybody who remembers the seemingly guileless genialities of Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush can see how electable a myth it is. It might just be that we as Americans take our own optimism as anesthetic for the wound of what Richard Slotkin, in a long study of the American West that Wallis refers to, called — and used as the title of his book — Regeneration Through Violence.
And violence there is in the story of David Crockett — not just of the grizzly kind, either. The world Crockett inhabited was, in many ways, fiercely up for grabs. As a young man, he set out to fight in The Creek Indian War, which broke out in 1813 after news of the killing and scalping of more than five hundred people at Fort Mims, a stockade then in southern Mississippi. He went off to battle with the words “remember Fort Mims!” ringing in his ears, leaving his wife and children behind to join in the fight for what may well have looked like survival itself: “When I heard of the mischief which was done at the fort, I instantly felt like going, and I had none of the dread of dying that I expected to feel” (italics mine). Once he’d seen and experienced enough of the fighting, which had begun over land, Creek civil wars and the prophetic outrage of Tecumseh (“Burn their dwellings! War now! War always! War to the living! War to the dead!”), he’d remember the gory ruin and devastation it caused years later when he served several terms in Congress as a representative of Tennessee.
Andrew Jackson, once a political mentor to Crockett and eventually an enemy, infamously demanded Indian removal essentially by any means — and trails — necessary. Crockett didn’t back down from the ire of Old Hickory. He stubbornly voted against the punitive relocation measures of the vindictive and paternalistic Jackson, defying his party and alienating much of his voting base in the process. He was convinced that Indian Removal was not only a tyrannical move for Jackson but also fundamentally immoral: “They said this was a favorite measure of the president, and I ought to go for it. I told them I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure, and that I should go against it … I would sooner be honestly and politically d—nd, than hypocritically immortalized.” There is, to extend the comparison little bit, a touch of Huck’s stirring “alright then, I’ll GO to hell” on a different, though equally historically relevant, issue of race. Wallis notes that some historians consider his stance more in the light of his anti-Jackson position, but it’s as much of a matter of principle either way. It’s encouraging to see that a figure so steeped in rosy Americana really could be as morally adventurous as he was by practice and disposition.
Crockett’s death at the battle of the Alamo is alternately charming and surreal. He’d lost his seat in Congress by then, frustrated with all the snobbery and hypocrisy of Washington, and he’d always been “itchy-footed” anyway. Wallis cites the accounts of star-struck fellow soldiers who’d probably grown up reading the comics and stories already wildly fictionalized from his life: “It was said that Crockett and a Scotsman named John McGregor, who brought his bagpipes to the fight, amused the garrison, and perhaps even the surrounding Mexican troops, with their musical interludes in between skirmishes and repulsed assaults.” No one knows precisely how Davy Crockett died, but the image of him, a merry old man by then, playing a fiddle to perk up his comrades as Santa Ana’s troops routed the place is too strange and vibrant to ignore.
Wallis knows full well that the icon is not the man in full, nor should it be. The issue with a biography like this is that the legend is so much of the story that debunking myths means the subject loses some of what makes him unique. David Crockett was romanticized in the same way that classic film stars, athletes, and politicians are, and for a similar reason — the legend is inextricably entwined with the actual human being. Not only is there no urgency to demystify, there’s almost no reason to. Sometimes the legend and the person are inextricable for perfectly good reasons. Late in his life, Crockett attended a loosely-based dramatization of his own exploits, where his stand-in character went by the swashbuckling name of Nimrod Wildfire. The actor playing him, decked out in fringe and a Wild West headpiece, ran to the front of the stage and made an elaborate bow to the guest of honor. The audience, initially shocked, stood up to applaud when Crockett himself rose from his seat and responded in kind. Life is sometimes larger than itself because people can be more than they appear.
Wallis’s biography gracefully walks the line between acknowledging this dynamic contrast and letting the yarn of Crockett’s life unwind in dynamic and fascinating ways on its own merit. This applies to the name on the cover, as well. It’s “David” Crockett, thanks, not the chummily informal “Davy” that pop culture taught us to say generations ago. In fact, the man himself never used the diminutive. His people — friends, family, voting constituents — were the ones more apt to do so. It was more about the warmth of familiarity than the preference of the man in question. In the cozy distance of posterity, however, our friendly condescension might resemble affection enough for us to ignore the difference. Fair or not, the image seems to preside over the reality even for those, like Crockett, who happened to be the genuine article.