This blog was inspired by the book Born on a Mountaintop by Bob Thompson and his look at Davy Crockett, historical research, and the culture of celebrity in America.

Celebrity is the chastisement of merit and the punishment of talent.

Sebastian Chamfort

Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, the only earthly certainly is oblivion.

To arrive at a just estimate of a renowned man’s character, one must judge it by the standards of his time, not ours.

You are aware that public men get ample credit for all the sins they commit, and for a multitude other sins they were never guilty of.  A private citizen escapes all public scrutiny and fares better for it.

Mark Twain

Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.

History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.

Napoleon

Fame is like a shaved pig with a greased tail, and only after it has slipped through the hand of some thousands that some fellow, by mere chance, holds onto it.

Davy Crockett

I class myself with Rin Tin Tin. At the end of the Depression, people were perhaps looking for something to cheer themselves up.  They fell in love with a dog an a cute little girl. It won’t happen again.

Shirley Temple

Thompson, Bob. Born on a Mountaintop On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghost of the Wild Frontier. New York, Crow Trade Group. 2012.

       In an article in Psychology Today  (5/01/95, “the Culture of Celebrity)  Jill Neimark writes this about the culture of celebrity in America:

Celebrity in America has always given us an outlet for our imagination, just as the gods and demigods of ancient Greece and Rome once did.  Celebrities are our myth bearers; carriers of the divine forces of good, evil, lust, and redemption.  “The wish for kings is an old and familiar wish, well-known in medieval Europe and in ancient Mesopotamia,”  writes Lewis Lapham in his book The Wish For Kings, “The ancient Greeks assigned trace elements of the divine to trees and winds and stones. A river-god sulks, and the child drowns; a sky god smiles, and the corn ripens.  The modern Americans assign similar powers not only  to whales and spotted owls but also to individuals blessed with the aura of celebrity.”

       The first American celebrities were war heroes and frontiersmen, later they were replaced by showmen and writers like Buffalo Bill and Mark Twain.  With the advent of film, radio and TV, this aura was passed on to the entertainers that graced each of the mediums.  Whether rock stars like Elvis or Sinatra, or film stars like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, and lastly TV stars like the droves of young actresses produced by Nickelodeon or Disney,  America has fallen in love with its celebrities.  Historian Daniel Boorstin says this creation of artificial fame comes from an imbalance between the limited supply of gods and heroes that come from nature and the limitless demand for their appearance on news stands.     Lewis Lapham summed up celebrity in America like this, “Celebrity has become the packaging of our society’s art and politics, the framework of its commerce, and the stuff of its religion.”

        The question then can be asked, when did this adoration of celebrity start, who was the first to, as Bob Dylan put it “feel like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs.”  Celebrity , or glory, has been part of human society since the days on the Serengeti, when the best hunters were probably idolized and mimicked by the younger members of our scavenger packs.  The story of Narcissus is a cautionary tale from ancient Greece of the pitfalls of celebrity, and the Bible warns us the pride goes before the fall.  William Shakespeare said of it:

Glory is like a circle in the water

Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,

Till by broad spreading it disperses to nought.

         While our founding fathers were treated with reverence one does not see the modern culture of celebrity until the early part of the nineteenth century.  The American myth was being born and it needed heroes, and the frontier supplied many, but one stands out today,  and surrounded in myth, so much, that separating myth from reality is an extremely hard if not impossible job.  Myths need stories and poetry to be expressed, and the myth of the British empire comes from Shakespeare, who in his play Richard II, John of Gaunt utters these famous lines (act II scene I):

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle

this earthly majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise;

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war;

This happy breed of men, this little world;

This precious stone set in a silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands;p

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

          An equivalent, with apologies to Shakspere, comes from the only man that approached the bards ability to create myth from historical event, Walt Disney.   The birth of this America classic is described in Bob Thompson’s new book, Born on a Mountaintop: on the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghost o the Wild Frontier, (p 245)

 A mock ballad wasn’t part of anyone’s original plan for the Crockett series.  In The Art of Walt Disney by Christopher Finch, producer Bill Walsh explains how that changed: When we got the film back to the Studio, we found we didn’t have quite enough footage for three sixty-minute shows.  So Walt said, ‘Why don’t you take some drawings and stick them together and give an idea of what the show’s going to be about..’ So we put the drawings together, sketches of Davy’s life, and Walt said, ‘Well, that looks kinda dull.  Maybe we can get a song to go with them.’

          Tom Blackburn and a longtime Disney composer, George Burns then, in what may have been an hour, wrote the song that eventually expanded to 26 stanzas of six lines each.  This little ditty would soon sweep the nation as did Crockettmainia, the first big film merchandising event, and the song that made Crockett an icon.  Disney himself did not like he song, but felt it would bring in the kids to the films, he was right.  The Ballad of Davy Crockett si about as famous, and maybe more so than the man.  many today feel it was written soon after Crockett’s death, but in fact, it was written almost 150 years after that event.

       Bob Thompson, who dropped out graduate school in history and became a journalist with the Washington Post, specializing in stories of the intersection of American history and myth. He wrote,  Born on a Mountaintop, to describe his journey through myth and history in an attempt to find the real David Crockett.  He says early in the book, “The alchemaziation of history into myth has always fascinated me, and I wanted to explore the way the transformation got made in Davy’s case.  Yet at the same time, no matter how many legends and myths I encountered, the real David’s story continued to move me.”  He tells this story as if it was a road trip, in the tradition of Sarah Vowell and Tom Horwitz, beginning with Crockett’s birthplace and finishing in the Alamo.  He gives not only Crockett’s history, but details the many myths that swirl around him as well as giving one a guide in doing historical research, especially of a person of which written material is scarce and much is fictional.

         He begins at the 175th  celebration of the Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio, but tells reader that this is actually his last stop of his journey that began with Burl Ives and his car radio, when his oldest daughter fell in love with the song Davy Crockett.  He says his task was, “One part of the task was to separate fact from fiction.  Another was to explain the difference.”  He then describes the journey he and his daughter to find Davy Crockett.  This made him wonder, why this man still brings such strong emotions from Americans.  To find this, years later , he went out on a journey  through  the places were Crockett lived and his legend grew.  He went out to track down the ghosts Davy Crockett that still haunt the American psychic.

         He began in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, were Davy said his father  John Crockett fought in the Revolutionary War and moves to his birth place in Tennessee.   He briefly tells why Davy ran away from home at 13 and ended up in Baltimore, were he almost joined merchant ship.   He tells the stories of his two wives, Mary “Polly” Finley and Elizabeth Patton,  as he details Crockett’s life before the Alamo.  He paints a picture of a typical poor resident of Appalachia who just kept looking for a way to provide for his family and gain some security.  This he paints in contrast to the speculators who dominated America’s move into this area.

        Thompson also tackles Crockett’s relationship with the Indians of the area.  From the Creek war, were Crockett first meets Andrew Jackson,  til the 1830s when Crockett opposed and voted against Jackson’s Indian removal bill.   The author also states that while many opposed Jackson’s policy of Indian removal, they did not oppose the ultimate objective.  That objective was that the Indians could either assimilate into the white culture or move west, either ment giving up the lands they owned.  Thus, like many of the time, Crockett had a complicated and sometimes contradictory relationship with the natives he lived and fought with during his life.

        His legend began to rise when he moved Lawrenceburg, Tennessee where he went into a career in politics.   First in the state legislature and finally to a career in Congress, where he is most famous for opposing the Indian removal bill.  But that is myth, this is what Thompson says was Davy’s most famous stand in Congress was:

Second, and more important, a least when it comes to understanding Crockett: the most dramatic speech the real David ever gave in Congress had nothing to do with white people exploiting Indians.

It was about rich people exploiting the poor

            The issue was the Tennessee Vacant Land Bill, which Crockett called a “swindling machine.”   The issue rose out of the Revolutionary War practice og giving land to veterans of the war, many never claimed the land so it sat vacant.  Poor farmers moved on the land set up small farms, but big land speculators wanted the land to become the property of the state of Tennessee.  They then could buy the land cheap from the state  and sell it for huge profits.   The poor farmer  would be dispossessed  their farms and either could buy the land from speculators or move out. Crockett wanted to give this land to those who were on it, thus he became the champion of the poor farmers in the state and opposed to Jackson and the money interest in Washington.  Crockett’s actions during this debate opened up the argument whether he was a tool of the anti-Jackson forces or was he really was a man who stood up for a cause he believed in.  Thompson details both sides of the debate and comes down on the side that Crockett was standing on principle.

         Thompson goes on to detail how Crockett went from a frontiersman to legend and show how he , like many today, become famous for who knows why, only to see, as Thompson says, “their lives contorted into a fun house mirror.”  Two things would transform David Crockett into Davy Crockett and perhaps launch the modern era of celebrity in America.  In response to a contest by an actor named James Hackett the play Lion of the West, whose main character Nimrod Wildfire was loosely based on Crockett and the book, Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett, of West Tennessee, were the vehicles that transformed Crockett into the celebrity that we know today.   The author of the play James Kirke Pauldine (friend of Washington Irving and future Sec. of the Navy) denied that he based the play on Crockett, but that was a falsehood, one that all saw through.  While Crockett is repute to  have bowed to the main character of the play, he hated the book so much that he produced his own autobiography, (maybe he first celebrity bio) A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee.  This was a political biography and one he lectured on during his famous book tour of the Northeast.  A book written about the tour, which also cemented his legend, cited Crockett as the author, but it was actually written by Pennsylvania congressman William Clark, was titled, An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East.  The book’s tone is  anti-Jackson and basically gives the positions of the Whig party.   Thompson concludes; “The man was duped.  The foaming champagne of celebrity went to his head.”   He was not the only one to have suffered such a fate.

        After losing his last election Crockett did what he always did when things went badly, he went west.  Before leaving he uttered his most famous line, “Since you have elected a man with a timber toe to succeed me, you may all go to hell, I will go to Texas.”  Mexico had opened Texas up to immigrants in order to fill this empty (like America, Mexico tended not to count Indians in census) and Americans responded with thousands flooding the land.  Walter Lord in his book, A Time to Stand: The Epic of the Alamo, states by the 1830s the Mexicans view of the Americans as:

They bitterly pictured a host of Viking invaders, “possessed by that roving spirit that moved the barbarous hordes of a former age in a far remote north.”

          The border between Mexico and the Untied States proved as porous then as it is today, and may have always been.  Thompson details Crockett’s travels in Texas and the beginnings of the chaos that was the Texas Revolution.  He shows that his motives were both personal, he was always looking for security for his family, and patriotic, he liked the lack of aristocracy in Texas.  The author depicts the Alamo battle and addresses many of the controversies and scenarios that have attached themselves to this famous battle.  He discusses the dime almanacs of Crockett that popped up after his death, beginning with the ghostwritten purported journal from the Alamo, Col. Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas, and they shaped Crockett’s story over the next one hundred years.  He also addresses two of the most controversial myths of the Alamo, did Travis draw the famous line, and how did Davy Crockett die.

           As for the line, one of the most famous of the stories of the battle, Walter Lord declares that those who defend the line as fact that they are, “protecting a shining legend – and what harm in a legend that only serves to perpetuate the memory of valor and sacrifice.”   Or in the words of J. K. Beretta, “Is there any proof that Travis didn’t draw the line? If not, let us belive it.”   Which is how Thompson leaves the subject, maybe he just is following the admonishment of an old Texan who said, “You know, legend is often truer than history and always more lasting.”

        The myth of Crockett is one that has gripped the nation since his death, a matter of some controversy.  In the traditional view Crockett goes down fighting surrounded by Mexicans in a famous last stand.  But that view has been challenged.  A memoir by a Mexican battalion commander, Jose Enrique de la Pena said in a single paragraph of his memoir, With Santa Anna in Texas: A personal Narrative of the Revolution,  where he claims that Crockett was one of six men who were executed by Santa Anna after the battle.  This seems to be backed up by a letter from a Sargent George Dolson, who also asserts that Crockett was executed after the battle, he says in a letter to his brother, that was what he was told in an interview with a Mexican officer.   The basic scenario is that after the battle a group of defenders were taken prisoner by General Manuel Fernandez Castrillon, who was later killed at San Jacinto, brought them before Santa Anna and asked what to do with them, saying that they should be made prisoners.  Santa Anna refuses and orders the men executed, with Crockett being amongst those who had surrendered.   On the subject Walter Lord states:

Did David Crockett surrender? It’s just possible that he did.  A surprising number of contemporary sources suggest that Crockett was one of the six Americans who gave up at the end, only to be executed on Santa Anna’s orders.

          Thompson goes into detail both sides of this debate and describes the intensity that it has assumed.  He does not belive Crockett was among the six executed by Santa Anna.  Santa Anna may have executed some who survived, but the man who later when in exile in New York brought the chewing gum industry to America, may have been a victim of many who wished to blame someone for the loss of Texas and California in the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War.  He concludes:

I don’t think we know how Davy died, and I don’t think we ever will.  But we make sense of the world by telling stories, as Crockett himself understood very well, and we’re simply not willing to let the mystery be.

            In 1955 Walt Disney was obsessed with one thing, Disneyland.  To obtain funding for the project, Disney cut a deal with ABC to provide a program in exchange for loans for the new park.  It was built around four “lands” (Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Frontierland)  with each land getting a series of TV shows as programming for ABC.  For Frontierland the TV team at Disney convicted Walt that Davy Crockett was the character that best fit the show.  First to be considered was the actor james Arness, but while watching Arness in the 1954 movie Them, a film about giant ants, Disney saw the scene where a young Fess Parker was being interviewed by Arness and exclaimed that Parker was Disney’s Davy Crockett.  Thus Fess Parker and Walt Disney teamed up to make Davy Crockett a superstar.

             Disney would say of his shows , “It’s characteristic of American folklore that most of our favorite legends and fables are based on the lives of real men like Davy Crockett of Tennessee.”  The words “based on” was the way Hollywood would use to transform any story into what the studio wanted.  Thompson details the making of the shows and the many stories behind the scenes of the creation of the series.  Disney made three films,  (Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter; Davy Crockett Goes to Congress; Davy Crockett at the Alamo).   Combining the power of the new medium of television with a merchandising campaign Disney tapped into a social, economic, and cultural force that Hollywood still envies.  With the ballad, Disney found the way to sell stuff to the baby boomers, and the entertainment industry has copied it since.  Disney made a trilogy with stuff people could buy, a campaign that is still followed by Hollywood studios today.

            Thompson tells the story of the Crockettmainia of the fifties and tells how it affected Parker, who Disney had him turn down roles in Bus Stop and The Searchers because they did not fit the Davy character.  Thompson also tells the story of the other two Alamo epics and how they merged into the legend of Crockett.  The first was the 1960 movie The Alamo, John Wayne’s epic about not only Crockett but a project that  Wayne wished  to show himself as more than a cowboy actor and give his political view of America.  Frank Thompson said of the film, “John Wayne’s crowning achievement, The Alamo was made to celebrate heroism, not history.”  Fess Parker and John Wayne had personified Crockett as the American public saw him, not as a historical character.

            Disney almost had Crockett escape from the Alamo,  but decides to have him die off-screen.  Wayne’s Crockett dies as he thrusts a torch into the Alamo’s powder room and only the 2004 Touchstone film has Crockett being executed.  Here Billy Bob Thornton tells Santa Anna he is under arrest right before he is bayoneted to death.  Thompson’s reaction to the file and Thornton’s portrayal, “File Thornton’s effort under trying to hard.'” Fess Parker even had written a script were Crockett had survived the battle and after many years of being a prisoner, escapes and returns to the Alamo.  Here he and George Russell (Buddy Epsen) see that it is better that the nation believes he died heroically, and thus the two ride off into the sunset.

            Thompson also  discusses Crockett in art. He explains how  the famous 1903 painting  called, The Fall of the Alamo, which shows Crockett in the center swinging his rifle over his head, shows the legend much like Emanuel Gottlieb Leutz does in his picture of Washington Crossing the Delaware.  He compares the Alamo painting  the equally famous and inaccurate painting by Otto Becker, Custer’s Last Fight, which it resembles.  (Becker had never seen American Indians so in this painting Custer is being overwhelmed by Zulu warriors with the South African Becker was familiar with).

               To tell his story Thompson takes one on a road trip to the many places Crockett lived and visited.  On this journey he introduces a great many characters who all add to the story of Davy Crockett, in a method that is not only entertaining, but gives a good lesson in historical research.  He also gives a very good idea of the work one has to do when trying to part the misty white fog that covers the past and find the actual person behind all the myths and stories.  Thompson tries to explain the difference between the myth and the man and argues it may be best told in Stephen Harrington’s book, The Gates of the Alamo, a historical fiction of the event, he says of Crockett:

As corny as this sounds, I think he is the embodiment of a lot that is great about America.  I think he’s a restless soul.  He’s a great fund of humor and goodwill towards other people; a relatively simple guy who wants to live his own life and prosper, and wants his friends to prosper; and a little naive, not cut out for the complexities and vicissitudes of politics as much as he thought he was.

          In his book the character Mary Mott asks Crockett what he is doing there, the man responds:

Why I am a wayward, wandering soul, Mrs. Mott,” he jokes, then gets more serious, “I lost an election, you see, and it hurt my sensibilities to have such a quantity of people say they could no longer stand the thought of me.  And the only cure that’s ever worked for me when I’m feeling hollow like that is to move on to a new country.”

Mary Mott is not buying this.

She could not see Crockett’s eyes in the darkness and shows of the church, but she supposed them to be bright with self-delusion – a shattered fifty-year old man still hostage to his boyhood dreams of flight and renewal.

            Crockett was the victim of celebrity, he was fleeing it when he went to Texas, as he had done many times in his youth.  Sadly, it lead him to his death, and created a myth of him that was far bigger than the real man ever was. What happened to Crockett may be best expressed by Nickelodeon’s Jeanette McCurdy in an article for the Wall Street Journal, (August 15, 2013) were she says of celebrity:

Once you become a celebrity, you are no longer a person, but an archetype.  To me, it’s like we young public figures are all our own Harry Potters, cast out through no fault of our own, or welcomed in through none of our own doing.  We’re living up to a legend created for us, and we’re either living the hype, or dwelling in the fact that it’s impossible to live up to.

      Crockett, the man, could be in total agreement with this young woman, as he was trapped by a legend, one created by a new American media and culture.  In fact, was not called Davy by friends, it was David to them, the real man liked the name David, like Lincoln, who despised the name Abe, was called Abraham by all who actually know him.  Thompson concludes his book with this judgement on history and celebrity:

  History drives a hard and devious bargain.  If you aren’t the famous one in the center of the picture, your life will likely be forgotten, no matter how interesting it is.  And if you are the famous one, as Crockett was in just about everybody’s picture of the Alamo, you will never be seen clearly again.

           With Crockett the American culture of celebrity was born, and it continues even to today.  The almanacs that spread Crockett’s legend also did the same with Custer and Wyatt Earp.  They made heroes of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, as well as many others.  They created the mythic west, that film later celebrated.  Taking their place, the film industry created its own celebrities, like Bonnie and Clyde,  and with the writings of Walter Winchell and Dorothy Parsons, the gossip industry of today was born.  From Freddie Bartholomew and Shirley Temple, to Annette Funicello and Elvis, to Selena Gomez and Hilary Duff today. Hollywood created celebrities and then destroyed them on many occasions, like Crockett they became trapped in an image and some did not survive it.  Lewis Lapham says of this culture:

Eventually the society chokes itself to death on rancid hype.  Which is probably why on passing a newstand these days I think of funeral parlors and Tutankhamen’s tomb.  The celebrity pictured on the covers of magazines line up as if in a row of ceremonial grave goods, exquisitely for burial within.  The tomb of a democratic republic that died of eating disco balls.

             Some in writing history decry this culture and fight to destroy the myths they feel cover up the truth and give credit to many who do not deserve it.  A good example of this is G Mayer’s book, The Tudors, where the author decry the myth of greatness of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.  But, myths don’t die, they are replaced by new ones, and new ones create celebrities, or heroes, for them.  This is how a people or nation explains itself and while fact may tell you what actually occurred, when combined with the myth, one can better understand why and what happened next.  Historians many times work ceaselessly for years to disprove myths, but they keep reviving and many times new ones overtake the historian before the work is done.

           To understand myth and celebrity is to understand the culture that produces them, many times better than any factual paper, lecture, program, or book ever could.  In my blogs of a future time I try to show this in my descriptions of feudal America.  Myths are not lies, they can be what many felt should have happened or explain why something happened, they are as important to the great tapestry of history as actual fact, but one needs to separate them and use both to see into the mind of the people of that foreign land of the past.  So (cuing the William Tell Overture and ignoring the whizzing in Gioachino Rossini’s grave) come along to the thrilling days of yesteryear and see the shaved pig racing down the hill with so many trying to grab Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame.  A great American pastime, in which one must ask, is the one who grabs and holds on really the lucky one?  Who says were not beautiful.

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