Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Autobiography of David Crockett

Yesterday, April 21st, was San Jacinto Day in Texas, an observance of the anniversary of the Texians' defeat of Santa Anna and the Mexican Army, the final battle in Texas' fight for independence. That battle took place on April 21, 1836 amid cries of "Remember Goliad!" and "Remember the Alamo!"

While the massacre at Goliad does not resonate outside of Texas the way the Alamo's legacy does, the Battle of the Alamo enjoys enduring historical recognition beyond state lines thanks to larger than life heroes fighting against overwhelming odds, as well as the numerous books on the subject and, in the last century, cinematic portrayals. The epic battle spawned its shares of heroes, legends, and myths, all of which apply to the heroic fallen defender, David Crockett. And it's his autobiography that inspired this post today.

Yesterday, I was cataloging books from a recent purchase (Friends of the Houston Public Library Sale) and got to The Autobiography of David Crockett (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923), with an Introduction by Hamlin Garland. This is actually a reprinting of three autobiographical Crockett narratives. I was oblivious, until later, of the significance of the day and its connection to what I was reading. At least I recovered in time to take the cosmic cue and get a few thoughts down on paper, or the hard drive as it were.

Garland's Bibliographical Note, which follows his Introduction, outlines the books that comprise this volume. A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee (1834) is presented here "precisely as it originally appeared, with a few misprints corrected" (so "precisely" isn't really accurate). Next up is An Account of Col. Crockett's Tour to the North and Down East (1835), reprinted here with the omission of all "verbose and repetitious political speeches" except one. Scattered arguments and reflections at the end have also been omitted. The third and last “autobiography” in this volume is Col. Crockett's Exploits and Adventures in Texas (1836) and is not seriously accepted as having been written by Crockett (it ends with him writing about his last hours at the Alamo). It is included here, minus the Preface by Alex J. Dumas and the final chapter recounting the last hours.

The last volume ends with Crockett’s supposed thoughts as conditions deteriorated rapidly around him.
March 4. We have given over all hopes of receiving assistance from Goliad or Refugio. Colonel Travis harangued the garrison, and concluded by exhorting them, in case the enemy should carry the fort, to fight to the last gasp, and render their victory even more serious to them than to us. This was followed by three cheers.

March 5. “Pop, pop, pop! Bom, bom, bom! Throughout the day.—No time for memorandums now.—Go ahead!—Liberty and independence forever!”
The next day, March 6th, the Alamo fell into the hands of the Mexican Army as they routed the greatly outnumbered Texians.

In the days leading up to March 6th, can you see Crockett writing this and more as the final hours--his final hours-- counted down? That Crockett would spend any precious time with a journal, dipping his pen into an ink well to scratch out a paragraph or two, between Mexican cannon volleys into the crumbling Alamo walls seems ludicrous. That the manuscript found its way to a publisher after the bloody battle ended with Crockett dying is even more preposterous. And how he died is a subject for much debate (another forum, another time).

Here is one version about how the last Crockett narrative in this 1923 volume came to pass. In Studies in American Humor: Col. Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas: Death and Transfiguration, William Bedford Clark writes:
Under various imprints, the Exploits sold steadily and well on both sides of the Atlantic in the decade or so following its appearance and so pervasively was its authenticity accepted at face-value (despite abundant internal and external evidence to the contrary) that as late as 1956 Crockett’s definitive biographer, James Atkins Shackford, felt compelled to devote an appendix to what he hoped would be "its final refutation." Shackford cited a reminiscence of the Philadelphia publisher A. Hart as to the work’s genesis:

The late Richard Penn Smith was in Carey & Hart’s one day, when Edward L. Carey told him that they had a large number of copies of Crockett’s "Tour Down East" which didn’t sell. Crockett had just then been executed by the Mexican authorities at the Alamo, and Mr. Carey suggested to Mr. Smith, that if they could get up a book of Crockett’s adventures in Texas, it would not only sell itself, but get them clear of the other books. They secured all the works on Texas they could lay their hands on, and Smith undertook the work. Mr. Carey said he wanted it done in great haste, and asked him when it would be ready for the printer; his reply was, "Tomorrow morning." Smith came up to the contract, and never kept the printer waiting. The result was that a great many thousands of copies of the book were sold and all the balance of the edition of the "Tour Down East." (Shackford, p. 274)
So a publisher with less than admirable motives knowingly published a fabricated "autobiography" and helped elevate an already popular Crockett into a hyper-mythologized American hero. Many future writings about Crockett and the Alamo would refer to this journal as a source of factual information.

I don't know how early or how often the Carey publication might have been debunked, but Hamlin Garland did just that for the 1923 Scribner's collection. More than 30 years later, James Shackford, referenced above, published the most factual and historically accurate biography of Crockett to date in 1956. Unfortunately, "historically accurate" ran into a buzzsaw of "mythical" and media marketing with the Disney Davy, starring Fess Parker as Davy Crockett. For the youth of the 1950s and 60s, myself included, Crockett was all about coonskin caps and swinging his rifle, "Ol' Betsy" at the Alamo. And so the legend grew, from Carey to Disney, some 120 years of an enduring popularity.

Back to the 1923 Scribner's collection, which may or may not have contributed to perpetuating a myth with the Crockett's Texas narrative, Hamlin Garland wrote in the Bibliographical Note that it was worthwhile to reprint "not only because it is itself interesting, but because the existence of such a book shows that there was current at the time a popular legend and literature of the frontier which made it possible for catchpenny hacks to manufacture a reasonably characteristic, reasonably convincing "autobiography" of a dead hero while his death was still in the news."

Some things never change. Biographers, regardless of the medium, would serve history better by adopting Crockett's motto (which I think learned as a kid from Walt Disney):

"Be always sure you're right--then go ahead!"

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