The Wall Street Journal Reviews Crockett

An Inexplicable Gift for Fame
by Henry Allen

The mystery is not who Davy Crockett was but how he got that way and why.

In 1834, two years before he died at the Alamo at 49, Crockett himself posed the same question: “I know that, obscure as I am, my name is making a considerable fuss in the world,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I can’t tell why it is, nor in what it is to end. Go where I will, everybody seems anxious to get a peep at me. . . . Therefore, there must be something in me, or about me, that attracts attention, which is even mysterious to myself.”

He was being honest, not modest. Until he became an author, notable achievement had eluded him except in the killing of bears and in the selling of their skins, meat and oil rendered from fat. He claimed to have killed 47 in one month. He also said that he had killed one with a knife, no easy trick.

He was a brave soldier of no particular distinction in battles against the Indians, though he acquired the title of colonel, not uncommon in the South, by being elected commander of a local militia. He was elected to three terms in Congress, but he failed to win passage of a single bill, including the homesteading bill he campaigned on, one that would have empowered the poor to buy public lands along with the rich he despised—plantation owners such as his fellow folk hero, Andrew Jackson.

He came to ruin as a manufacturer of gunpowder and barrel staves. He bought farms and neglected them. He blazed few trails along the lines of explorers such as Daniel Boone or Kit Carson. He stayed mostly in Tennessee until his debts were huge, his wife and children had left him, and he’d just lost an election to the House.

At that point, there was nothing left for him but to go to Texas, fulfilling a campaign promise to voters who would desert him: “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas,” he said. Back then Texas was known as a last refuge for debtors and desperadoes—the empty cabins of unlucky Tennesseans would be marked with “GTT” for “Gone to Texas.”

And yet, and yet . . . he is Davy Crockett, the American’s American, folk hero and icon, exemplar of frontier independence, template of man at home alone in the wilderness, teller of tales, drinker of whiskey, a sharpshooting legend in buckskins and a coonskin cap, famous in his own time and ours.

On his fateful trip to Texas, a Little Rock, Ark., newspaper reported that “hundreds flocked to see the wonderful man, who, it is said, can whip his weight in wild-cats, or grin the largest panther out of a tree.”

Crockett is best known to us from Walt Disney’s apotheosis of him on television in the 1950s. In movies he has been played by John Wayne, Johnny Cash, Brian Keith and Billy Bob Thornton, among others. “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” from the 1954 TV series starring Fess Parker, was a much recorded hit song, though Crockett was not “born on a mountaintop in Tennessee” and had not “kilt him a b’ar when he was only three.”

He was big for his time—one estimate put him at 6 feet and 180 to 200 pounds. He had pink cheeks, a big chin, bright eyes and a genial innocence about him, a charm that prompted the writing of biographies and almanacs, starting before his death and continuing through this spring’s biography, “David Crockett” by Michael Wallis, a specialist in Western Americana and biographer of other folk icons like Billy the Kid and Pretty Boy Floyd.

Mr. Wallis uses a chronological format to pick through the much picked-through records of Crockett’s life along with the re-told tales and myths. He calls him David, because that’s how Crockett signed his name, though some documents of the time refer to him as Davy.

Crockett was born in 1786, Scots-Irish, a descendant of the impoverished, raucous, land-hungry, war-loving tribe that had swarmed into America in the 1700s in a horde far outnumbering the Puritans or Quakers or Cavaliers of Virginia—2½ times as many as all the others combined. Their restlessness settled the West all the way to California.

He had literate parents but next to no schooling. He grew up in dirt-floored cabins in the Tennessee forest. In fear of a beating from his hard-drinking debtor father, a tavern-keeper, he ran away from home at 13 and returned when he was almost 16. Thanks to a Quaker farmer, he then learned how to read and write.

He seems to have been a genius as a talker, famous as much for the telling as for the tales themselves. Mr. Wallis quotes a Texan named John Swisher, who wrote that Crockett “had an ease and grace about him which, added to his strong natural sense and the fund of anecdotes that he had gathered, rendered him irresistible.” Swisher recalled that “he conversed about himself in the most unaffected manner without the slightest attempt to display any genius or smartness.”

Crockett’s brags were legendary, but they were a comic art form practiced throughout the frontier, and so tongue-in-cheek as to be a form of modesty in themselves, as in the much-reported: “I’m that same David Crockett, fresh from the backwoods, half-horse, half-alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle; can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio, ride upon a streak of lightning.”

Crockett possessed that inexplicable gift of fame, something produced by some mysterious scent, vibration, telepathy or maybe a noise so high and fine that only dogs can hear it—dogs and the media.

In any case, Crockett matched the modern definition of celebrity—famous for being famous. The difference is, his fame persisted. Think of the unspeakably famous people whose celebrity is fading like the Cheshire cat—Winona Ryder, Ross Perot, G. Gordon Liddy, Phil Donahue. Et tu, James Reston, king columnist of the New York Times? Note too the fame of Sarah Palin, who plays the Crockett card—geniality, folksiness, rifle shooting, wisecracks and wilderness adventures recorded for television.

Crockett helped teach Westerners who they already were and gave them a proud self-consciousness, like that of New Englanders with their Yankee jokes. (E.g.: You can’t get theah from heah.) He spoke the American language, funny and sly in the frontier style that would later make Mark Twain famous, too.

In his autobiography, “A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee, Written by Himself,” he warns the reader: “On the subject of my style, it is bad enough, in all conscience, to please critics, if that is what they are after. They are a sort of vermin, though, that I shan’t so much as even stop to brush off.”

If Mr. Wallis had quoted more of Crockett’s own narrative I would have read it gladly, but he focuses on getting the facts straight, even wading into the dispute over exactly how Crockett died at the Alamo, a question that will never be settled. Did he die fighting? Did he surrender and then die at the hands of Gen. Santa Anna’s officers? In the end, Mr. Wallis asks, “does it truly matter how Crockett died?” His fame helped make the battle a great moment in American history, and Mr. Wallis even argues that “to those who claim that God made Texas, one may say that, figuratively, Crockett invented Texas.”

He invented a kind of American manhood, too, one that depends on believing it can always survive walking alone down whatever mean streets—can pack up and head West as a last resort, like Huck Finn lighting out “for the Territory” or Jack Kerouac fleeing nothing and everything by heading west in “On the Road.”

Most of all, though, he invented himself, and we still want to hear about him.

Comments are closed.