Wednesday’s Book Review: “Born on a Mountaintop”

Born on a MountaintopBorn on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier. By Bob Thompson. New York: Crown Trade Group, 2012.

The literary world has not been the same since Tony Horwitz published Confederates in the Attic and set a new standard for mixing history with reportage and travelogue account writing. Washington Post feature writer and editor Bob Thompson seeks to do Horwitz one better by following the trail of David Crockett in the first third of the nineteenth century and exploring his tall tales, broad legend and myth, and cultural significance in the twenty-first century. The result is an often entertaining, sometimes illuminating, and at times pedantic work that raises many questions.

The story of David Crockett is a compelling one, as American as any and just as difficult to uncover. A pioneer, a politician, an Indian fighter, a settler, and finally a newcomer in an altercation that has come to be known as the Texas Revolution, Crockett left a lasting impression everywhere he went. But what is most interesting about him is not his life, but the myth surrounding him since his death at the Alamo in 1836. He has come to symbolize the American experience; he was an example of a resolute frontiering people colonizing a wilderness, the epitome of the civilizing experience of bringing a new land into America’s democratic tradition, and personification of the virtue of perseverance, honor, heroism, and sacrifice. Never mind that Crockett’s life does not really fit so well into this mythology.

Historians have always wrestled with the nether world between reality and myth. Thompson quotes one on this subject in Born on a Mountaintop. “Understand and appreciate the mythology, and understand and appreciate the history,” according to Stephen Hardin, “but for God’s sake, place them in different pastures—because where we get into trouble is when we confuse our history with our mythology” (p. 331). True enough, and anyone who wades into the story of Crockett will forever need to separate the real from the legend.

That legend was born in the nineteenth century, by writers of various stripes and by keepers of the flame of a heroic birth of the Texas Republic. It was added to, modified to suit contemporary ideas, and recast in the twentieth century. In every case, the Crockett legend grew and morphed into an object lesson for American exceptionalism. The modern infatuation with David Crockett arose in 1954 with the release of a three part production on the Walt Disney television show starring Fess Parker as Crockett. It set off a fad around the nation as every kid seemingly wanted a coonskin cap and a replica long rifle. Parker played an attractive Crockett, with homespun warmth, rolling accent, and high ideals.

As an actor it was Parker’s high point, although in the 1960s he went on to star in a weekly TV show about Daniel Boone, and although he portrayed a different frontier hero his character was essentially the same as in the Disney production. Disney marketed the Crockett image magnificently, selling everything from toys to lunch pails and using it as a standard element of his Frontierland experience in the Disneyland theme park. Too often films since that time, especially John Wayne’s 1960 The Alamo, served up the mythology without even a smidgeon of concern for the historical Crockett.

It is this David Crockett of legend that Thompson is tracking, separating where possible the real and the imagined. There are all manner of personal stories reported here, most of them start with a recollection of Fess Parker’s Crockett, which at times were cute but too often descended into triteness. I especially got tired of hearing about Thompson’s daughter and her infatuation for all things Davy Crockett.

I was also struck by the shallowness of some of the reporting, as in the failure to probe deeply into the filming of two movies about the Alamo ramroded by Hollywood stars a half century apart. The John Wayne story of the 1960 film, The Alamo, has been well documented and understanding and explaining that experience would have been a major contribution. Historians have done a good job of this already in their studies of the Duke and his place in Americana. Too bad Thompson did not delve deeply into that research. The Billy Bob Thornton movie about the Alamo was equally personal with Thornton playing Crockett, by all accounts he was intent on authenticity as an ardent investigator of all things Crockett. The place the Crockett story continues to hold, manifest in these films, deserves serious consideration. Unfortunately, I did not see much of it in this work.

Bob Thompson does a better job with the most significant historical controversy surrounding Crockett, his death at the Alamo at the hands of a Mexican army under the command of Santa Anna. There is considerable research by a bevy of professional and amateur historians into this question. It turns essentially on whether or not Crockett died fighting the enemy, as depicted in so many films, paintings, sculptures, and written texts, or whether he was captured and executed by Santa Anna. In some of those accounts of capture he even begged for his life, something Crockett aficionados could never accept. The evidence is not conclusive one way or another, but there are hard sides to this debate and researchers have been arguing about it for years. Thompson does an able job of laying out the issues, even if he does scrimp in places, and offers a rational explanation. Essentially, he thinks, that there were some Texans that surrendered at the Alamo and that they were executed on order of Santa Anna. Crockett, as the most notable of all of all of the Alamo defenders might have been among them, but we cannot know for sure.

Sorting out the conflicting accounts, as well as trying to develop the most legitimate narrative using all of the credible evidence is the stuff of history, and controversy is its mainstay. Most of the time this controversy is of interest only to a small community of specialists. In this instance, there are communities and groups invested in the outcome. The result has been nothing short of the proverbial fireworks. The heroic story of the last stand at the Alamo remains the standard account given at the shrine in San Antonio. It remains the basic story told in Texas state history textbooks. In it Davy Crockett and his comrades died nobly at the Alamo winning time for Sam Houston to assemble an army to fight Santa Anna and gain Texas independence. But resting side by side with this heroic tale are the complicating aspects of the Crockett biography and the surrender and execution of several of the Alamo defenders, perhaps Crockett himself. Reconciling those two approaches to understanding the past is impossible; finding a space for both is a core task for historians. Thompson aids in this process with Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier.

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