Daily News Reviews David Crockett

Mountain man, American hero: Davy Crockett embodied many qualities we still cherish
by Stanley Crouch

In a country overrun by myths, it is crucial to separate important figures from pleasant, paranoid or even poetic portrayals. The facts are always more interesting; bringing a historical figure to human size can be remarkable in itself.

That is the case with the recent “David Crockett: The Lion of the West” by the historian Michael Wallis, whose earlier books include “Pretty Boy,” an astonishingly serious treatment of the Depression-era outlaw Charles Arthur Floyd, a murderous and tragic figure.

I hope to someday have read all of his books, because Wallis understands the intriguing and mysterious element of American life and history. Whether in the Wild West that Wallis often writes about or in contemporary America, we are always quick to confer fame, but that fame is quite often followed by misunderstanding.

The tension between fame and notoriety, and how both are distorted in our rapacious media, is captured by Wallis in “Pretty Boy,” which tracks the career of one of the Midwest’s most notorious bank robbers. Wallis portrays a crude and savagely violent world in which the criminals of the 1930s are mowed down one by one, never quite understanding that the fateful powers that have elevated them – the newspaper, the photograph, the radio – are also helping to destroy them. There is a lesson here for today’s celebrities, too.

“David Crockett” concerns itself with a different breed of American. The pioneers of the age of Manifest Destiny moved into the wilderness of the American West with an unprecedented optimism. Driven by a dreamy hope, they completed their conquests out of the limelight.

For all the blues that these men would bring to domestic Indian tribes, our American predecessors were a hearty bunch who played the cards that frontier life served them, even if those cards were made out of razor blades. The bitching and whining of our time would not have been well received in Crockett’s world.

And as Wallis makes clear, Crockett had many more dimensions than the fictional character Walt Disney’s crew fashioned for children in “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter” in the 1950s. Disney’s Crockett was a kitschy sensation of coonskin caps, plastic rifles and whatever else could feed the bottomless hunger for folksy American heroes.

As I am now learning in Wallis’ book, the real Crockett was folksy but intelligent, a masterful yarn spinner, a tremendously good shot and a very sturdy figure. And yes, Crockett was an actual Indian fighter – but he also opposed President Andrew Jackson’s genocidal policies.

As with “Pretty Boy,” Michael Wallis gives us a vital history of one segment of our shared past by clarifying the context of Crockett’s time, which – like the Depression – is crowded with misconceptions. The bittersweet history of our nation does not need the froth of exaggeration: All the poetry we need can easily be found in the souls of the people themselves.

This is especially true when the very idea of democracy leads citizens to stand up to whatever they have to face, simply because they believe that anything is possible.

No matter how misused and abused that idea might be, it still accounts for the countless Americans who want to be pioneers in this time – and may well turn out to be.


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