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The Real Life and the Many Legends of Davy Crockett

by Mark Derr

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-688-09656-5
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

 A well-researched if not particularly incisive life of the legendary Tennessee backwoodsman, politician, and Alamo martyr that examines his achievements and changing public image through the years. Derr (Some Kind of Paradise, 1989--not reviewed), a distant cousin of Crockett's, treats his subject sympathetically while separating the man from the tall tales. Crockett drank and gambled, Derr tells us, though not as much as charged by foes, and, through two ghostwritten memoirs, he became ``an increasingly self- confident manipulator of his public image''--a mixed blessing for his reputation, since, in emphasizing his humble origins, he so exaggerated his lack of education that many wrongly assumed that he was illiterate. As a congressman, Crockett was an eloquent advocate for the poor, and his greatest act of political courage--denouncing the removal of Indians to west of the Mississippi--caused him to split with Andrew Jackson and thus to destroy his political career. Yet it's clear from Derr's telling that, no matter how likable Crockett was, he never achieved much of substance. Throughout his life, he broke with strong men--notably, his alcoholic father and Jackson--only to switch time and again to other authority figures. He got campaign money from his second wife rather than from his own efforts, and, as a legislator, he was in over his head, often reversing positions on bills and seldom willing to compromise. He inflated his record in the War of 1812, and contemporary accounts indicate that he surrendered at the Alamo before being tortured and killed. But Crockett's image has been adaptable enough to survive through succeeding ages: first, as a ``comic Hercules'' and racist hater of Indians and slaves; then, in the 50's Disney series, as an exemplar of resistance to tyranny; and, more recently, as a New Age child of nature. Objective and cleareyed, but unwilling to press some of the harder conclusions about Crockett warranted by the historical record. (Maps, eight pages of b&w photos--not seen)