I am a bit slow on this one. An excerpt from my Davy Crockett novel Doom was published in the April issue of The Brooklyn Rail. Something here relating to a childhood obsession with Walt Disney’s version of the story and Fess Parker and raccoon hats.
A little research demonstrated that Davy probably never wore a coon skin hat, that this popular image derived from a stage actor who became immensely popular doing a broad caricature of Crockett’s public backwoods persona.
The backwoods persona hooked into a kernel of truth. Crockett was a hardscrabble farmer, living mostly in poverty, hunting for meat. But when he turned politician, he leaned on his street cred, drawling out homespun stories, telling jokes on his opponents, dolling out chewing tobacco and horns of liquor to constituents.
The real David Crockett perhaps looked more like this.
He became a member of the House of Representatives from Tennessee, a Washington personality, a campaigner for what were called squatters rights, a popular speaker, and a legend in his own time. At one point, he was nominated to run for president, though not much came of this. But what really interested me, aside from not being what he seemed to be, was that Crockett wrote a book, his memoirs, which was intended as one of the first campaign biographies but was actually a very readable, if somewhat untrustworthy, account of growing up in rural America after the Revolution. Some critics see it as an early precursor of the kind of folksy humour Mark Twain made famous. There is also some doubt about how much of the book Crockett actually wrote (he had some help). But he published other books as well, collections of articles and speeches, mostly intended as potboilers.
All this interested me. In one of his letters from Texas, he confided that he wanted to write one more book, a sentiment with which many of us can identify. This was on his way to the Alamo, and we all know what happened there (though current research says we have all that wrong as well).
Here’s a taste of what is in The Brooklyn Rail, from an early chapter.
Yr Informant indites:
When the Orchestra blared out Crockett’s March, Hackett, the Actor, tramped upon the Boards in Moccasins, leather Chaps, buckskin Fringes a foot long dangling from his Shirt, & a shiny Rifle cast in the Crook of one Arm. On his Head was a Varmint curled in a peculiar Manner so that the Tail hung over one Temple.
This was at the Washington Theater.
It were Uncanny to see the Legend from the Box, me & not me.
As if there weren’t already enough Versions of me wandering the Earth.
There was no use saying I didn’t wear a buckskin Shirt or that the Fringes would catch in the Laurels on a bear Hunt or that Hackett was Taller & Straighter & Leaner than yours truly.
He bowed & I bowed. It was like looking through the Mirror. I had the Feeling as the Audience bayed & Applauded that there was some mean public Joy in the Juxtaposition of the Real & the Theatrical, only I was not sure which was which.
I knew who I was when I pissed in the Pot & put on my broadcloth Coat & tied my Tie & brushed my broad-brimmed Beaver ere Tom Doggett came to Fetch me at the boarding House.
But I had entered a treacherous Place in which it did not matter what I thought was real. People were sure James Hackett’s Colonel was the authentic One.
To most Folks who had seen the play or just heard about it, he was the Identical Colonel.
This is some new Dispensation in the Order of Things. I cannot Fathom it completely. Christians quote me back what I Said in the Play & if I don’t talk the way Hackett makes me talk they Turn away disappointed. So I find I must Bend myself toward the Unreal to seem Real.
I believe I was somewhat responsible for promoting Myself on the Stump & liked the Acclaim & Intrigue.
But it has got Away from me.
I am living Legend but the Legend precedes me.
He bows & I bow.
Did you ever see the devil,
With his pitchfork and ladle?
I am all of a Sweat because I envy Him.
Except for that peculiar Hat.
Which now the Constituents expect me to wear, which I do, God Help Me, imitating an Actor imitating me.