Davy Crockett, Man of Letters


Portrait of Crockett by John Gadsby Chapman

Today is the birthday of Davy Crockett (1786-1836).

Because he has been so heavily mythologized I think there has been an unfortunate tendency to regard this important American figure as a total “folk hero”, like Johnny Appleseed (also a real guy), or perhaps more like, say, Mike Fink or Pecos Bill. One hears of exploits like wrestling bears and contemplates the costume which has since become so iconic and arrives at a verdict of “unreality” even when so many of the historical things he did (served in Congress, died defending the Alamo) are a matter of record.

Last year I chanced to read his 1834 memoir A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Written by Himself (ironically co-written with fellow Congressman Thomas Chilton.) I was drawn to the book by two opposite but related impulses. One is that I am working on a piece of writing inspired by the American tradition of humbug and Tall Tales, a theme I have been seriously exploring for a couple of decades now. But the second attraction was the facts. I am related to Crockett (through his great-grandmother, who was a Stewart) and (by marriage) to his first wife Polly Finley. And he lived where my family lived (Eastern and Middle Tennessee) and fought in the same battles in the Creek War and War of 1812. I thought I might pick up useful details, and I indeed did.


But I found myself especially impressed with the book as a founding American cultural document of sorts. Crockett is like a missing link in American politics, and a pioneer in letters. In this highly entertaining book I heard a VOICE, a voice that I feel must have influenced everybody from Mark Twain to Abraham Lincoln to Will Rogers. Crockett’s voice is humorous, earthy, folkish, steeped in the hilarious, outlandish metaphors and hyperbole of the frontier. It manages to be both boastful and honest “Always be sure you are right, then go ahead” was his motto).

I say “missing link” because Benjamin Franklin had been our first politician to walk around in a coonskin cap and fringe jacket, although he did that in Paris and purely for a calculated effect. Crockett would become one of our first national political figures to make a virtue out of being rustic, paving the way for all those “log cabin” presidential candidates who came in his wake. If he had lived longer, I have little doubt, his national ambitions would have continued to bear fruit. Interestingly. his arch-nemesis was Andrew Jackson, also from Tennessee. He hated Jackson’s Indian removal policy and his autocratic tendencies. This hurt him at home politically.When Crockett was voted out of Congress in 1835, he went to Texas to take part in the Revolution, which is where he met his end. (“The voters can go to hell; I’m going to Texas” I’ve tweaked that a little but that’s essentially whet he said). Had he not died, it’s likely he would have been right there with Stephen Austin and Sam Houston as one of the founders of the Republic, and then the State, of Texas.

In the Narrative, Crockett plays both Ned Buntline and Buffalo Bill. It’s this tooting of his own horn that makes him so American. His early childhood was uncommonly hard: indentured servitude, farm labor, starvation and more than one incident of running away from home to go on long distance cattle drives — all before adulthood. He made a legend for himself as a bear hunter (the amount of bears he claims to have killed can’t help but strike you as gross) and an Indian fighter, and his leadership and manly prowess was what propelled him to success in local politics despite his lack of formal education (he was sent to school but played hooky for a long stretch, a phase of life one can’t help associating with Huckleberry Finn). His tales of the difficulty of courting his wife (over the objections of her mother) are quite touching.

The success of the book and his martyrdom at the Alamo led to dime novels and stage plays about him, then movies, and finally the tv show, which truly cemented the legend. Surely, people think to themselves, this guy can’t have been real. But he WAS.




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