What most baby boomers know about the legendary frontier figure David “Davy” Crockett has been gleaned from the Walt Disney movie and television series starring Fess Parker. In American Legend: The Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett, WSU English professor Buddy Levy presents a fuller profile of the man who made Tennessee famous in the early 1800s. It’s not just a master heroic outdoorsman who emerges; the consummate politician and ferocious fighter for underdog causes shines through as well.
Born August 17, 1786, Davy Crockett found his independent spirit and developed his frontier skills on the open road at the age of 14, when he ran away from home for two years. It was a scenario that repeated itself over the course of his lifetime, as Crockett went from adventure to adventure—on the rugged frontier, into the hallowed halls of the U.S. House of Representatives, and to his death at the Alamo on March 6, 1836.
This may be the definitive story of Crockett’s life, more so than Crockett’s own 1834 autobiography, in which he capitalized on his own pop-culture hero status rampant at the time. Levy has obviously researched every inch of Crockett’s life but is careful he doesn’t let myth overpower the truth, even though it’s obvious Levy admires his subject.
Still, American Legend is not without its dramatic moments. Crockett’s killing of a 600-pound black bear depicted on page 109 is as thrilling as any fictionalized adventure story.
What most historians will find interesting, though, is Levy’s close study of Crockett’s political prowess. Long before Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Crockett perfected the common-man affability that attracts votes. He learned early in his political career that it was better to tell an amusing tale than it was to be informative and boring. Despite the lack of substance in his speechmaking, once in office, he was a man of principle who took strong stands against Andrew Jackson’s land reform and Indian removal policies. The political break with Jackson, who had commanded Crockett early in his military career during the Creek Indian War in 1813, led to Crockett’s 1831 political defeat in his bid for a third term in the U.S. Congress. A later, unsuccessful try for political office sent Crockett down the road to fight for Texas’s independence from Mexico.
Levy wrote American Legend using the purest biographer’s ethics. He doesn’t “recreate” conversations, and he backs up his story with extensive notes. Using his vast experience as an outdoor and travel writer for popular magazines, he weaves a story as exciting and interesting as the tale portrayed onscreen by Fess Parker.