Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee (American History Through Literature)
Authored in 1834 by David Crockett (1786836), with some editorial assistance from his congressional colleague from Kentucky, Thomas Chilton, the Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee is one of the most significant documents of the American pioneer experience in the first half of the nineteenth century. It describes the author's life from his first memories in eastern Tennessee through his progressive moves westward, his participation in the Creek War, his hunting experiences, and his political service in the Tennessee House of Representatives and the U.S. Congress. The book closes with Crockett's reelection to his final term in Congress (1833835), shortly before his fateful journey to Texas and his death at the Alamo in 1836.
CULTURAL AND LITERARY SIGNIFICANCE
Crockett himself had only limited schooling, and the literary influences on his Narrative were probably few, possibly including Benjamin Franklin's autobiography (which had first appeared in English in 1793) and the comic political commentary of Seba Smith's fictional "Jack Downing" letters, published in the Portland (Maine) Courier in the early 1830s. However, the greatest immediate influence and inspiration was the 1833 biography of Crockett written anonymously by James Strange French (1807886), Life and Adventures of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee (later published as Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee). In a preface to his own Narrative, Crockett takes offense at his characterization in the biography and explains that his autobiography will provide a more accurate picture of himself. However, he must have known French and actively provided information for the book, for Life and Adventures provides many accurate details of Crockett's life, which in many cases is seconded by Crockett's own account in style as well as in substance. In several cases, an understanding of anecdotes related in the Narrative requires a prior reading of Life and Adventures.
Crockett's Narrative was very popular throughout America and England and greatly extended his multifaceted reputation as a frontiersman, bear hunter, Indian fighter, and politician, a reputation that had been previously established by French's book and by James Kirke Paulding's 1831 play, Lion of the West, about an eccentric and outspoken character generally assumed to have been Crockett.
The Narrative, which remains still widely available, is a masterpiece of frontier literature. It is a rare account of the western experience, made even more significant by the lively style of the narration, the colorful use of language, and the comic perspective taken throughout much of the book. Comparable works of the era include Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes (1835) and Joseph G. Baldwin's Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi (1853); however, these latter two works include separate stories largely based upon second-person observations of frontier life by educated authors rather than the first-person account provided by Crockett.
Crockett provides rare insights into the human experience on the frontier as he describes being hired out as a child to neighbors by his father for labor; his two-and-a-half-year odyssey after running away from home at age thirteen, including his virtual kidnapping and daring escape in deep snow; his frequent relocations to emerging western frontier lands; and his near-death experiences from malaria, combat with Indians, starvation, freezing, and drowning. He describes in some detail his experiences in the Creek War as well as his unorthodox political campaigning style and his experiences in Congress as an opponent of President Andrew Jackson.
Some critics complain that the book lacks traditional plot and theme development, too often intrudes on the narrative with partisan invective against Jackson, and contains events that seem tedious or commonplace. However, these apparent flaws also serve to provide the book with its appearance of authenticity. Many expressions found in the book appear to be original, or at least new in literature, giving the book a feeling of freshness and novelty for the time. For example, Crockett describes in detail an example of his dogs "barking up the wrong tree," an expression that dates back only to the time of the Narrative. Some other expressions such as "neck or nothing" (p. 198), "stand up to [the] rack, fodder or no fodder" (p. 61), and "too close for comfort" (p. 164) found early liter-ary appearances in the Narrative, as did Crockett's motto: "Be always sure you're righthen go ahead!"
Crockett employed a spare, realistic prose style that anticipated the later realism movement in fiction. This style generally was uncommon in popular fiction of the period, but it is similar to that of first-person accounts of other frontier authors of the periodor example, Black Hawk's 1833 autobiography or Elias Darnell's 1813 account of the battle of the Raisin River (Michigan) of the War of 1812. However, Crockett's stories contain an element of humor not found in those other works. Crockett's gift for storytelling may have arisen from his early years growing up in his father's eastern Tennessee tavern. An oral reading of Crockett anecdotes reveals the Narrative's debt to the storytelling tradition, with its directness and the lively immediacy of its prose.
The Narrative has often been characterized as containing extensive use of hyperbole, and the author's name has been firmly linked to the "tall tale" of American frontier tradition. Although the Narrative does contain effusive uses of language, Crockett in fact omitted many of the most extravagant "half horse, half alligator" anecdotes from French's Life and Adventures, in which he was presented as a figure known for startling bears to death, "grinning" raccoons out of trees (and in one case, mistakenly grinning the bark off a tree), and being offered a commission to mount the Alleghenies and wring the tail off Halley's Comet. In the preface to his book, Crockett lamented the "great injustice" done him by the author of the previous work (p. 3). Since Crockett several times in the Narrative mentions the possibility of his running for president of the United States, it is possible that he wished to present himself as a less-extravagant character than that portrayed by French.
Actually, the Narrative overall may be more notable for its directness, simplicity, and humorous understatement than for its use of hyperbole. For example, Crockett describes a time when he had fallen ill with malaria, alone on a trace on the Alabama frontier, and he was met by some Indians, who signed to him that he would soon die: "a thing," Crockett recounts, "I was confoundedly afraid of myself " (p. 129). With the help of the Indians and a pioneer family, Crockett survives this ordeal; he recovers and finally returns home to his family, where he finds that he was reported to have died and been buried. Crockett comments, "I know'd this was a whapper of a lie, as soon as I heard it" (p. 132). Another example of comic understatement is found in Crockett's description of his first congressional defeat, by two votes: "I have always believed that many other things had been as fairly done as that same count" (p. 173).
Crockett also provided some stark realism in his recounting of events he witnessed during the Creek Indian War. These passages have been thought by some to represent Crockett's indifference to the plight of American Indians; however, according to accounts by contemporaries who knew Crockett, these stories were intended to demonstrate the brutal realities of war, and in fact much of the bitterness he expressed concerning the U.S. government's treatment of the Indians may have been deleted at the advice of his editors. This latter view is also supported by Crockett's strong opposition to the Jackson-supported legislation to remove Indians from eastern lands.
Crockett's Narrative developed themes that, in conjunction with the stories of, for example, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Joseph G. Baldwin, and Johnson Jones Hooper, provided a rich legacy of frontier humor, expanded upon years later by Bret Harte and Mark Twain. Crockett's bear-hunting stories anticipated Thomas Bangs Thorpe's celebrated short story "Big Bear of Arkansas" (1841) and Henry Clay Lewis's "The Indefatigable Bear Hunter" (1850). The latter story describes a frontier protagonist who presents an interesting parallel to Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's (1819891) 1851 novel, Moby-Dick, in that Lewis's protagonist loses a leg to an encounter with an enormous bear, falls into deep depression during recovery, and sets out on a mission, on his new wooden leg, to become America's greatest bear hunter. As such, Crockett's Narrative can be seen as a substantial component of an emerging and important new American literature.
AUTHENTICITY OF THE NARRATIVE
Scholars have debated whether in fact Crockett was the primary contributor to his autobiography. This debate has largely centered on the arguments that the manuscript was submitted to the publisher in the handwriting of Thomas Chilton and contained peculiarities of spelling and grammar not found in Crockett's letters to friends, family, and constituents. Crockett maintained, however, that Chilton had merely edited his original manuscript for spelling and grammar. Furthermore, many of the anecdotes, attitudes, expressions, and overall style found in the Narrative in fact do resemble language that can be found in Crockett letters and speeches in Congress. Crockett himself claimed primary authorship for the work (he apparently did not privately claim primary authorship for other works published in his name), and he kept his family informed of his progress during the writing of the book.
Much of the debate regarding the authenticity of the Narrative reflects the claims of a proposed literary-political conspiracy first put forth in 1927 by Vernon Louis Parrington in his influential Pulitzer Prizeinning work, Main Currents in American Thought. This theory was further developed in 1956 by James Shackford, Crockett's principal biographer, and it has been restated by more recent biographers until the early twenty-first century.
According to this theory, Crockett's fame was largely manufactured by an eastern Whig elite who wished to promote him as a frontier-character alternative to Andrew Jackson and the Democrats. Part of this promotion effort included the production of literary works, one of which was the Narrative. (French's earlier biography was also said to have been ghostwritten by the clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mathew St. Clair Clarke.) Skeptics suggest that Crockett, supposedly an ignorant, simpleminded frontiersman, would have been incapable of writing such a work himself and that the writing must have undertaken by Thomas Chilton.
Little hard evidence is provided in support of this theory, however, which appears to rest mainly on the notion that if Crockett opposed the supposedly proletarian Jacksonian Democrats, he must have been somehow duped by wealthy eastern interests. However, poor and middle-class loyalties of the time were approximately equally divided between Democrat and Whig. And in fact, Crockett had reason to distrust Jackson and the Democrats, who opposed him on land reform, on internal improvements to his district, and on his support for the national Bank of the United States and whose Indian removal bill Crockett opposed, referring to it in the Narrative as a "wicked, unjust measure" (p. 206). Furthermore, Jackson Democrats had campaigned against Crockett since at least 1825.
It is clear that Thomas Chilton served as a kind of technical editor of the work and may in some cases have assisted in more significant matters of style and substance. It is also true that the Whigs welcomed an authentic frontier character who opposed Jackson, and Whigs did help sponsor a Crockett tour of the eastern states in 1834. In spite of these influences, however, there is little substantive reason to believe that the Narrative is not largely Crockett's own work.
PROTAGONIST AS FRONTIER HERO
In the Narrative, Crockett elaborated upon a uniquely American tradition of the frontier hero, which appealed to the public's interest in finding authentic American characters and its fascination with the western frontier. Life on the frontier was first related to eastern readers in first-person accounts and in John Filson's 1784 "autobiography" of Daniel Boone, whose rescue of his daughter from Indians inspired events related in James Fenimore Cooper's (1789951) Last of the Mohicans (1826). Frontier heroes as depicted in Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Crockett's Narrative, and Timothy Flint's 1833 biography of Boone inspired tales of colorful frontier characters drawn from this tradition in popular fictional dime novels produced throughout the nineteenth century. Frontier heroes and characters in the Crockett mold are also found in Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods (1837) and James S. French's Elkswatawa (1836). In Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), the frontiersman as hero, and antihero, is presented in a more literary context.
The Narrative also provided a direct influence on the Crockett almanacs, the first of which appeared during Crockett's lifetime in 1835 and which continued through at least forty-four issues until 1856. Although almanacs had been published in America since the seventeenth century, the Crockett almanacs focused on colorful tales of wild animals and hunting, often adding comic hyperbole in the tall tale tradition, for example, in comic encounters between "Davy" Crockett and the keelboat man Mike Fink. Through these almanacs and other elements of the frontier literary tradition, inspired in part by Crockett's Narrative, the frontier heron equal parts boastful, comically unsophisticated, honest, moral, and courageousmerged as a significant figure in American literature and popular culture throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and have continued to appear in western novels and films even into the twenty-first century.
See also Borders; Folklore; Humor; Tall Tales
Crockett, David. A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee. 1834. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973. Facsimile edition, annotated and with an introduction by James A. Shackford and Stanley J. Folmsbee.
Arpad, Joseph, ed. "Introduction." In A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, by David Crockett. New Haven, Conn.: College and University Press, 1972.
Derr, Mark. The Frontiersman: The Real Life and the Many Legends of Davy Crockett. New York: Morrow, 1993.
Hauck, Richard Boyd. Davy Crockett: A Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
Lofaro, Michael A., ed. Davy Crockett: The Man, the Legend, the Legacy, 1786986. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.
Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927.
Scruggs, Thomas E. "Davy Crockett and the Thieves of Jericho: An Analysis of the Shackford-Parrington Conspiracy Theory." Journal of the Early Republic 19 (1999): 48198.
Shackford, James Atkins. David Crockett: The Man and the Legend. 1956. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Thomas E. Scruggs