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Sunday, January 12, 2014

"Crockett" - Two Stories - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

Who the heck was Davy Crockett if we can't accept Hollywood's version?

As usual we can find a Wikipedia article on Davy Crockett, but it doesn't capture the reason the man was popular in his own time, nor what value may exist in learning more about a man who, as Wikipedia put it: David "Davy" Crockett (August 17, 1786 – March 6, 1836) was a 19th-century American folk hero, frontiersman, soldier and politician.

He was mainly self-taught or at least had little time in school.  His military experience gave him the title of Colonel, but his actual fighting experience was far from outstanding.  As a politician he didn't always win elections, although certainly not for lack of effort.  His championing of frontier life for all and his ability to tell a wild anecdote about himself, however, was where he hacked out a place for himself more durable than any log cabin.

Politicians today could easily admire his ability to create an image, but they might do better to appreciate how Crockett's dedication to causes made him fight with the same kind of fierceness attributed to him fighting wild animals.

That sort of image-building and fighting spirit comes out strongly on the first page of his autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Written by Himself (even though Kentucky congressman, Thomas Chilton, did the writing to get it recorded).  On the title page he says: I leave this rule for when I'm dead,  Be always sure you're right -- THEN GO AHEAD!  That is signed, THE AUTHOR.  The unnamed book Crockett protested in the preface is The Life and Adventures of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee.  Yet Michael A. Lofaro, in his introduction to today's book, The Tall Tales of Davy Crockett; The Second Nashville Series of Crockett Almanacs 1839-1841, says "Although Crockett pleaded ignorance as to the identity of the author of this book, it was surely he who provided the bulk of the biographical data to his friend, Clarke."   As Famous Literary Hoaxes (Part Two) points out Crockett always used his anecdotal reputation, but the myths got out of hand, sometimes damaging his career or at least profiting others unscrupulously.

I struggled with that same quandry looking at The Tall Tales of Davy Crockett; The Second Nashville Series of Crockett Almanacs 1839-184l.  Did I have the right to republish the tales?  Yes, they date back to the 19th century, but I strongly recommend Lofaro's work.  When the University of Tennessee Press published it in 1987 he was the Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee (now professor) and I highly recommend his analysis of these almanacs.  He's a recognized expert on both Crockett and Daniel Boone.  Looking at the almanacs themselves, I wondered if they deserved republishing.  Some language is far from politically correct, but it does reflect the views of the day.  That same language attempts to reproduce the backwoods way Crockett talked.  It also claims to be published by Crockett's fictitious English friend, Ben Harding, and clearly came after Crockett's death at the Alamo.  The almanacs claim to be either among the memoirs left behind or possibly by him as a captive in Mexican salt mines.  Those claims also could be called a tall tale, but the almanacs, beyond the required astronomical facts, were obviously overdone for sheer entertainment.

Obviously I, too, find value in the tales.  

Why? 

They are part of the foundation of American tall tales.  Professor Lofaro also has a more recent work I'm eager to read: Davy Crockett's Riproarious Shemale and Sentimental Sisters: Women's Tall Tales from the Crocket Almanacs (1835-1856) published by Stackpole Books in 2001.  I saw a hint of it in the Second Nashville Series.

The almanacs have interesting full-page illustrations that don't look like Hollywood costuming of Crockett.
From the cover of  The Crockett Almanac 1841
Crockett's youngest child recalled the legendary coonskin cap was worn as Davy went off to the Alamo to safeguard his beloved frontier for settlers.  Just as Crockett often dressed differently than we expect, the raccoon tail in the illustrations looks like it's attached to what might have been his militia uniform hat.  The paperback binding made it difficult to show that hat, other illustrations, some of the typical almanac astronomical data, and the way the stories were sometimes segmented.  This page from the 1839 almanac gives two stories, including a bit about his wife, all on one page.  It also mentions one of his dogs, Grizzle.   

The dialect doesn't read easily, but the almanacs give an interesting opportunity to hear language accepted as coming from the frontier population.  Having just gone through a week of sub-zero temperatures, I love the opening of it being "so cold I was afeared to open my mouth, lest I should freeze my tongue."  The spelling reminds me of 19th century correspondence.  Noah Webster's dictionaries eventually were recognized as a standard for literate spelling, but the creator of the Crockett Almanacs wanted to give the impression of originating with a self-taught backwoodsman.  Certainly David Crockett, the congressman, was all of that and also an innovator in stretching his adventures into tall tales.  Storytellers can thank him for his role in creating this type of storytelling literature.

Undated engraving by Asher Brown Durand of David Crockett
While mulling over the decision to print or not print this bit from the almanacs, I've also been working on this year's multi-state Summer Reading Program.  My focus will be The Sky's the Limit with Star and Sky Stories That Fizz, Boom and Sizzle.  (Yes, that's a long title, but the multi-state theme is "Fizz, Boom, Read!")  I've told various astronomy stories for years, but I wanted to be sure and include comets.  Not an easy topic to find in folklore until I found . . . in Irwin Shapiro's Tall Tales of America, "Davy Crockett, The Yaller Blossom o' the Forest."  

At this time when we're still ending the Christmas season by talking of the Wise Men following a star, this bit of storytelling history, too, seemed like a sign that deserves pursuing!

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This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in Public Domain."  The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were compensated.  I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent on works of the 20th century.  I hope you enjoy discovering new stories. 

At the same time, I've returned to involvement in projects requiring research as part of my sharing stories with an audience.  Whenever that research needs to be shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that week.  This is a return to my normal monthly posting of a research project here.  Response has convinced me that "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" should continue along with my monthly postings as often as I can manage it. 
 



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