Thursday, May 18, 2006

De-Disneyfying the "King of the Wild Frontier"

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, history

How many legends circle around to meet their model in his lifetime? He never figured out how to spend within his means, partly because he so seldom had any; he had way too many kids (9) on little or no income; he was elected three times to Congress, but wholly ineffectual as a legislator. Yet he was an enormously popular public speaker; a spectacular marksman and hunter (nearly no 21st Century person will ever see in their lifetimes as many deer, bears, and wild turkeys as he killed in a single year); he published three books, two of embarrassingly poor quality and one that is still a classic; and it is accurately said that David Crockett was the first genuine American Celebrity, the most popular man of his generation. It is also pertinent to observe that, had he lived through the Alamo slaughter, he'd likely be mostly forgotten today. Like Samson, he became greater in death than in life.

To me and my schoolmates and siblings, Fess Parker was "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier." We all had "coonskin" (dyed rabbit skin) hats. We sang the song. We went to Disney's Frontierland in Anaheim.

Buddy Levy has slogged through a huge mass of material, in particular cross-checking and corroborating the things Crocket wrote about himself, and has produced a powerful biography, American Legend: The Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett. Crockett was not only a champion woodsman, hunter, and orator, he was a champion spinner of tall tales. More than a few are found in his "autobiography."

How to encompass a character whose fame barely fits the continent?
Historians have tried! Tens of thousands of pages in hundreds of books and thousands of learned articles...with the total growing daily. Fortunately, Author Levy has boiled it down for us. The portrait that emerges is a man of nearly incurable optimism, who suffered frequent reverses of fortune, a series of spectacular rises followed by equally stupendous descents.

He was a sore loser, but not the kind to hold long grudges; given to pushing ahead even harder than before. He embodied his motto: "Always be sure you are right, then Go Ahead!" Trouble is, he seldom had a good take on what was right, or perhaps among the various "rights" he had to choose from, he typically chose the most contrary.

I've read some pretty hefty chunks of Crockett's prose (and of course I know it was edited by his friend Thos. Chilton), and no historian can match the style. I nonetheless find Levy's writing quite readable anyway, quite a bit better than most histories. Good research, well presented.

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