Mythology, Men, and Coonskin Caps: On Michael Wallis’s David Crockett

November 18, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 8 8 min read

“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.

coverI’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.

coverAnd 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.

Image: Wikipedia

is a freelance writer living outside Boston.

8 comments:

  1. Great review- I wouldn’t normally pick up a book like this but Mr. Hanson piqued my interest in David Crockett.

  2. One can never separate the man from the myth too much when speaking of people’s lives. Although Crockett is a grand American myth and story, his background regarding fighting for the Texas Revolution is of bigger interest to me. Perhaps I’ll pick this one up soon.

  3. I like Mr. Crockett. He’s full of strange and fanciful stories. One that springs to mind was the time that Davy Crockett was attending a political rally that was running out of cider. Without hard cider, everyone would start heading home, so people put pressure on Davy Crockett to go out and find more. Davy didn’t have much in the way of money on him, so he went into the woods, found a raccoon, shot it, skinned it, and brought it to a local general store in exchange for a keg of cider which he brought back to the rally.

    Eventually, that keg was drained, and Davy was sent out again. He ended up back at the general store to see what he could scrounge up, when he saw his coonskin sticking out of a hole through the front counter. Davy pulled the coonskin through the hole, slapped it on the counter and requested another keg of cider.

    As the rally wore on, that keg of cider was used up as well. Davy walked back into the same general store, saw the same coonskin poking through the hole in the counter, pulled it out, slapped it on the counter and walked back with another keg of cider.

    I don’t know about this book in particular, but I assume it’s full of stories like this. The man is half hero, half rapscalian. Matt’s right, there sure is a bunch of Huck Finn in the Crockett’s ethical code… but there’s also a ton of “Tom Sawyer painting the fence” as well. And the great thing is, since (unfortunately) few Americans know their Antebellum American History, you can regale people at parties for hours with stories about a man that everyone feels that they should know a few things about, but few people do…

  4. When I was a child our family got our first TV just around the time that the Davy Crockett series was being shown on Walt Disney Presents. I also had a record of the Davy Crockett song and knew all the words. Eventually I even had a coonskin cap! I would say that Crockett was my first American hero. (Annie Oakley was my first female American hero.) I even remember reading a biography of Crockett written for kids when I was in grade school.

    Reading your review made me think of Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons, a novel set in the times of Crockett, Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears. The main character had a bit of Davy Crockett about him I think. Now I wonder if that is not partly what made Thirteen Moons so special for me.

  5. What a thrill to read this piece on our immortalized Crockett. Part history, part legend, part myth, part political intrigue, part Americana style tall-tale, Mr. Hanson has wrought a splendiferous review with a prose to reckon with. Long live this iconic figure. Long live Mr. Hanson. It’s all good; it’s all Davy Crockett.

  6. Whatever the facts are, they are sufficient for true mythologizing.

    As for the pernicious results of made-up myths: we only have to watch any one of the Republican debates.

  7. Nice job Mr. Hanson ! As someone who grew up on the Disney-fied version of this truely unique American legend your review of Wallis’ book has given me a renewed interest in the real “King of the Wild Fontier”. Thank you!

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