Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Born on a Mountaintop by Bob Thompson - Two Book Reviews

Sam Sattler is a fellow book blogger, bluegrass music enthusiast, and political junky living in Houston, TX. We discovered each other a few years ago through our mutual enthusiasms. We also found that although we differed in our approaches to each area, we could communicate with respect and thoughtfulness. We thought it would be interesting to our readers to cross post our reviews of the same book. They highlight our differences as well as our shared interests. Sam blogs at Book Chase. I look forward to meeting him face-to-face this summer at the MACC.

History is often viewed through the eyes of the present. How we understand the stories of the past depends largely on the perspective we bring to them from the lives we lead and stories we hear in the now. So with Tom Johnson, whose interest in Davy Crockett grew from the legend of the man Walt Disney portrayed in his three part television series aired early the history of the amusement park he was building in California. Johnson's young daughters, having seen the video of the shows, became obsessed with Crockett. Johnson, in order to help them separate the truth of the man who was “Born on a montaintop in Tennessee,” “Kilt him a bar when he was only three,” and died a hero at the Alamo in far away San Antonio, from the man who was much more interesting undertook to write the present book. Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier by Bob Thompsan will be released by Crown Publishing in March at a price of $27.00 and is available in all the usual formats.

Davy Crockett as Portrayed By Fess Parker
The Disney Vision
From a childhood of dire poverty to running away to seek his fortune at age thirteen to marriage and loss, serving with (and opposing) Andrew Jackson in his Indian removal project, elected to two non-consecutive terms in Congress and his death in the defense of the Alamo, Crockett became a legend in his own time. He was a bitter foe of President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal policies and an advocate of land distribution reform which would allow homesteaders to gain title to their holdings. Johnson seeks to follow the murky story of a man who left a slight paper trail and to separate it from the legend he helped create, but which was burnished into a tourist attraction by Walt Disney on television and the development of the towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. The story takes on more interest to me as it spends some time in Dandridge. Tennessee and along the Dumplin Valley Creek where we go each year to attend a bluegrass festival. While Crockett himself is interesting and important, equally interesting is the search itself as Johnson tries to separate the man from the myth.

Congressman David Crockett

As the author's journey continues, he must delve through layers of contemporary culture to seek to perceive the underlying culture that has clothed Crockett in the mists of time and myth. Thus, present day Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg hide the long lost traces and unrecorded history of the original pioneers, represented by Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, who originally settled there or in places like them. Meanwhile, he sheds new light on incidents and policies like Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Project and the machinations of land speculators in the West. He discovers that Crockett was neither the shrewd country bumpkin nor the innocent dupe he is often pictured as being. As Davy Crockett wends his restless way towards the Alamo, Bob Thompson emerges as a serious historian seeking to discover the man underneath the myth despite the need of so many Americans to keep him atop his pedestal for their own economic and psychological well being. He consults, with care, the few actual papers that attest to Crockett's accomplishments as well as the voluminous written materials which are often outright fabrications that created his unbreakable mythic self, an image Crockett himself did his best to create and nourish.

 Fanciful Version of Crockett at the Alamo

Many questions remain about Crockett, and the more heroic they sound, the more iffy they become. Did Travis really draw a line in the sand? Was Crockett killed fighting or was he executed later by Santa Anna. Did he ever wear a coonskin hat? Did the “half man/half alligator” talk ever cross his lips? Or was he a restless, irresponsible man hungry to make a fortune yet always falling short and moving on to what seemed like greener pastures? Does it matter? And there's the question Thompson leaves us with in this engaging and challenging biographical essay that explores both the historical and cultural elements which combine to create our imagination about who we are as Americans. Because it's in this nexus between historial fact and cultural mythology that we become great as well as indulging ourselves in self destructive policies based on what we would like to be.

Author Bob Thompson

Bob Thompson, a Washington-based journalist, spent several years at the Washington Post, where as a feature writer and editor of the Sunday edition. He was best known for pieces exploring the relationship between myth and history. In this engaging popular history, he has written a thought provoking and enlightening piece in which he describes Davy Crockett as America's first media celebrity, the subject of plays, dime novels, and ghost written autobiographies during his lifetime and a massive resurgence of his popularity when Walt Disney used his story to publicize the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim in 1955. Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road withDavy Crocket and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontieris published by Crown (368 pages, $26.00). It was provided to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Net Galley (

Sam Sattler's Review

Born on a Mountaintop

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.
                                     Davy, Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier.
Just looking at the title of Bob Thompson’s new Davy Crockett book, Born on a Mountaintop, gets me humming this old Disney song from the fifties – even to the point that I have a hard time getting it back out of my head.  Men (and probably more than a few women) of a certain age are likely to have fond memories of the five-segment Walt Disney “Disneyland” series that spawned this little tune and all the Davy Crockett gear we managed to wear out between 1955 and 1956.  I still remember the coonskin cap I wore everywhere and the little plastic frontier “rifle” I carried with me. 
Suddenly, children across America were obsessed by a fabled hero that grabbed our imaginations like nothing had before.  Davy’s (as portrayed by actor Fess Parker) face was on so many lunch boxes, magazines, comics, bubble gum cards, coloring books, games, and pajamas that Walt Disney was probably able to pay for most of Disneyland with his company’s share of the sales proceeds.  Davy Crockett was that big – and we loved him.  Little did most of us suspect, at least at the beginning, that he had been a real man.  He really had been a congressman, an Indian-fighter (of a sort), and had died a hero’s death at the Alamo.  When we found this out, especially those of us growing up in Texas, we were more enchanted by the idea of Davy Crockett than ever before.  The man will be a mythical hero to us for the rest of our lives.
Fess Parker as Davy Crockett 
Only later would some of us wonder about David Crockett, the man who transformed himself into “Mythic Davy,” a national celebrity long before he died in San Antonio.  Born on a Mountaintop, explores how Crockett managed to achieve that, the key role Walt Disney played in perpetuating the Crockett legend for at least another half century, and what might have really happened at the Alamo. 
For author Bob Thompson it all started when his two little girls became obsessed with the Burl Ives version of that old Davy Crockett theme song.  Soon, the girls were asking questions about Davy, his nemesis Andrew Jackson, and their shared history.  Thompson, in the process of answering their questions, grew fascinated with the “alchemization of history into myth,” and a book idea was born.  With many stops along the way, Thompson would walk in Crockett’s footsteps all the way from his east Tennessee birthplace, to where he fought Indians in Alabama with Jackson, to Washington D.C, and, finally, to the Alamo, where Crockett took his final breath.
Disney's Davy Crockett at the Alamo
Crockett, of course, would not survive long in Texas because of his decision to join the Texas army when it was least prepared to defend itself.  But, as Thompson notes, from the moment word of his death reached the rest of the country, the real Davy Crockett was forever replaced in the minds of most by the fictional Crockett.  And the myth that grew up around Crockett so deeply captured the imagination of Americans that his story would be common knowledge for close to 100 years before finally fading from the public consciousness. 
Better timed for Crockett’s was his crossing of paths with another kind of legend, Walt Disney.  Disney’s 1955 decision to use Crocket rather than the more conventional choice of Daniel Boone to help publicize the “Frontier Land” section of his new theme park, coincided perfectly with the “arrival” of television.  Now, a cultural hero could be created from scratch in just a matter of weeks, and in Crockett’s case, there was so much good stuff to stretch that his myth would become more widely accepted than ever before – and it would endure for at least another half-century.
Washington-on-the-Brazos (Photo taken in 2010)
I am a native Texan.  I live within an hour’s drive of the spot (Washington-on-the-Brazos) Sam Houston sat when the call for help arrived from the Alamo defenders.  What is left of the Alamo itself is within easy driving range of me.  Because their story has been part of my life since I was seven (thanks to Mr. Disney), I tend to give Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Jim Bowie stories the benefit of the doubt more times than not.  But, when it comes to history, I am also a realist.  Born on a Mountaintop re-visits all of the weakest points of the Davy Crockett legend that I have encountered and wondered about over the years.  For lack of any real proof, Thompson’s theories about what really happened all those years ago will have to remain just that – theories.  However, I feel certain that his theories are closer to the truth than the myths that have grown up around these heroic men.
But, you know what?  I think I admire Crockett and the men of the Alamo more than ever because a book like Born on a Mountaintop is a good reminder of what real human beings can accomplish when challenged to do the seemingly impossible. 
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.
Davy, Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier.

(Fess Parker as Crockett cards are from my 80-card Walt Disney card set produced to promote the company's Davy Crockett and Alamo movies.)