In the Twenty-First Century, is there a role for Heroes in History?
A year or two ago, I was reading a book on the Texas frontier when I came across a quote that sounded familiar. The author was referencing someone from the early nineteenth century, quoting their opinion on the Indian wars and American expansion during the period. I stopped, because the historian had not explicitly named the person he was quoting, but rather identified the sentiment as that of “a southern frontier statesman.” Thinking this was strange, I quickly flipped to the endnotes, where, sure enough, David Crockett was cited as the mysterious source. Since then I have spent some time thinking about how odd it was that the author would be so vague when quoting as notable an American figure as Davy Crockett.
Such a minimization of Davy Crockett fifty years ago would have been unthinkable, either in an academic or public sphere. In the mid-twentieth century, the Tennessee congressman and famous Indian fighter was still revered as an American hero. Admiration for Crockett spanned demographics, including America’s baby boomer youth. Disney ran a five-part television mini-series starring Fess Parker from 1954-1955 with resounding popularity. In 1955, Disney productions cobbled together elements of the mini-series to create the feature film Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, which followed the adventurer from his early days as a bear hunter and army scout through his congressional bid and final battles in Texas. By 1960, a youth fad for coonskin caps had taken off across the country. Disney now estimates that the Davy Crockett craze brought in a total of $300 million in merchandise over the course of the decade. For adults too, Crockett fit into the 1950s narrative of American exceptionalism and triumph—what historians now call postwar consensus history. Having won World War II only to become locked into an ideological Cold War with the Soviet Union, Americans looked to figures like Davy Crockett as symbols of American strength, freedom, and valor.
As subsequent cultural waves ran through the nation, however, the public craze for Davy Crockett waned and the academic community turned toward other pursuits. With the rise of revisionist history among professional historians in the late 60s and early 70s, scholars began to rethink old narratives about America’s exceptionalism and “great men” like Crockett. Their critiques of earlier portrayals of notable figures shed light on flaws previously obscured. As British historian Max Jones puts it, many of these scholars “set out primarily to pull old idols off their pedestals.” They began exposing history’s heroes and their feet of clay. And heroes like Crockett had plenty of clay to expose. Reading his own writings, one cannot overlook his references to “wrestling” his “black servant” or slave. He fought in the War of 1812 and the Red Stick War against southeastern Indians, or “red devils” and “savages,” as he often called them. He makes continuous lewd and bawdy references to sexual exploits, extra-marital escapades, and masturbation. In his own words and the historical record, he certainly presented himself in a cruder and more colorful light than Walt Disney’s technicolor ever portrayed him. Historians exposed and highlighted this.
Through incisive scholarship and careful research, revisionist historians helped debunk the myths of not just Crockett, but also figures like Daniel Boone, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Rogers, and George Washington, complicating our understanding of America’s past and highlighting the important questions of race, slavery, Indian dispossession, class disparity, and women’s history. Historians came to interpret many of these formerly “heroic figures” as “instruments of nationalist and imperialist ideologies.” But for all this good work contextualizing, have we lost the compelling personalities like Davy Crockett in the process? As Max Jones puts it, “heroes, then, might seem an unpromising subject for scholarship at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” The nameless quote in the book I read seems to suggest we have.
A dismantling of America’s heroes, whether as collateral damage or intentional iconoclasm, has permeated not just revisionist academic circles but our wider culture as well. Today, many would dismiss Davy Crockett, and for that matter all of American history as “a bunch of racist old white guys.” One historian, lamenting the general apathy for learning about prominent American figures notes, “When the heroes of the past are discussed in public today, they are as likely to be objects of derision as veneration.” While there may be no need to venerate such storied figures as Crockett, there may still be some benefit to acknowledging his prominent and important role as a figure in American history.
One benefit of reviving such figures would be the excitement they conjure up among the general public and not just history circles. In the past and even now, Americans have shown a fascination with biographies and charismatic historical personalities. During the same heyday of Americana that brought Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett to TV screens, the Landmark Books Series churned out over 150 accessible works of history, many of which served as biographies of famous Americans. Running from 1950 to 1970, this series of books targeted a young audience with compelling characters from America’s past. Progressive for the time, the series even featured focus pieces on African-Americans, women, and Native American leaders, emphasizing the point that a return to heroes in history does not preclude a diversity of American characters.
The Landmark series also excelled at cultivating informed popular interest in the past, something that academic historians continue to struggle with. Through the Book-of-the-Month Club, about 70,000 young people received the latest Landmark book, which guided a broad engagement with historical figures like Crockett. They garnered wide readership and a generation of young people grew up learning and loving history through these works. A popular love of biographies has not died out, as any stroll through a Barnes and Noble “history” section will show. An attempt to purchase box office tickets for Hamilton may also highlight the point. The American public continues to be excited about the country’s history, often through noteworthy individuals. It seems prudent that historians might rejoin the wider societal fascination with historical personalities, and work to repurpose tarnished figures, engage the public, and reinvigorate a broader appreciation for the past.
A return to heroes like Crockett can also be a tool for historians to interpret and present historical context and underscore the complexity of the past and, even, human nature. Crockett, rather than being exceptional, is a worthy embodiment of the struggles and paradoxes of his time: valuing freedom but benefiting from human bondage, fighting Indians but honoring them as allies, fiercely rural but successfully metropolitan. A former president of the American Historical Association encouraged historians to analyze heroes “as sites within which we can find evidence of the cultural beliefs, social practices, political structures, and economic systems of the past.” Often, such prominent individuals run themselves through the key thematic and topical questions in a historical field, giving historians a worthy vessel through which to chart events and processes over time. In this same vein, illuminating a noteworthy individual can force scholars outside their comfort zone, getting them to connect their own specializations to the broader stories of history. “In an increasingly specialized academic environment, the study of heroic reputations forces scholars to work across disciplines”—always a positive if historians are to be engaging with a broader audience of both fellow scholars and an interested public. Rather than shying away from troubling personalities like Davy Crockett, historians should embrace the man as both a compelling character and a barometer for the broader history of the era.
And now back to that nameless endnote. David Crockett was born in a log cabin along the Nolichucky River in 1786, in what is now Greene County, Tennessee. He began as a poor backwoodsman who scraped by on furs collected along the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. He killed bears, panthers, and deer by the hundreds, engaging in what Americans then understood as a “taming of the wilderness.” While he represented the lower sort, he nonetheless owned slaves and would eventually become a celebrated congressman, riding the frontier wave of populism that shook the foundations of East-coast politics in the Antebellum period. While he scouted for the army and fought Indians, he also advocated against Andrew Jackson and Indian Removal, citing his long ties to the Cherokee allies as his motivation. He maintained a wife and family, yet also bragged about his sexual exploits, complicating our understanding of early American patriarchy and gender norms. Finally, this celebrated American ventured beyond the boundaries of the United States to fight in a southern expansionist insurrection in the Mexican territory of Tejas, dying at the Alamo in 1836. While former generations venerated his virtues, subsequent waves of historians branded him a racist, expansionist, sexist, or buffoon. Finally, by the time I was reading a twenty-first century book on the Texas borderland, Davy Crockett had become so bogged down in reinterpretation that it became easier to cite him as a nameless quotable from the southern frontier than as a historical personality, let alone hero.
But something is lost in minimizing a larger-than-life figure like Crockett. Something more than hagiographic valorization and hero-worship. In overcomplicating figures like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, or even George Washington, historians run the risk of rendering them unusable and unintelligible figures for a general public. Beyond that, historians run the risk of deadening history for a public that still looks for heroism and charisma. If historians’ role is to be responsible storytellers, our narratives still must have characters. If our stories are to be good ones, then these characters must be compelling. Someone like Davy Crockett, with all his complexity, stands in to highlight the pitfalls, triumphs, and problems of his age. This seems a usable model to reintroduce the “heroes” from earlier generations back into the narrative. We should not abandon such heroes, but rather embrace them, in all their complexity, as both a constructed aspiration of what we want them to be and a realistic assessment of who they were in their historical times. Reintegrating characters like Davy Crockett into the public and scholarly view has the potential to revive interest and clarity in history for a society that still looks for heroes yet seems at a loss to find them. It seems the duty of historians, as responsible scholars and good storytellers, to embrace and revive, rather than ignore, these figures.
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