Boone alone has a comic counterpart Davy Crockett

Among our major figures, Boone alone has a comic counterpart --Davy Crockett, that "yaller flower of the forest" whose career became a grotesque frontier joke. His saga is Boone's turned upside down.

In 1818 there lived near Shoal Creek, Tennessee, a frontier squatter who had, in his own colorful words, "suffered only four days of schooling." When his neighbors decided to set up a temporary government, they elected him justice of the peace. Davy Crockett's amazing career was thus launched. Throughout it all he relied on "natural born sense, and not on law learning; for I never read a page in a law-book in all my life." After a term in the state legislature, he accepted (apparently as a joke) the challenge to run for Congress. He won, and served satisfactorily.

The Whigs, stressing his eccentricities, humor, and lusty pioneer spirit, turned him into a vote-getting buffoon.

Party journalists wrote, but attributed to the almost illiterate Crockett, Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett ( 1833), An Account of Col. Crockett's Tour to the North and Down East ( 1835), A Narrative of the Life of D. Crockett, of the State of Tennessee ( 1834), and The Life of Martin Van Buren ( 1835). Alexis de Tocqueville was intrigued by Crockett, refer. ring to him as one who "has no education, can read with difficulty, has no property, no fixed residence, but passes his life hunting, selling his game to live, and dwelling continuously in the woods." The Whigs went so far as to let Davy sit on the platform with Daniel Webster. For a while Tennessee's greatest bear-hunter even expected to be nominated for the presidency. Instead, he failed to be re-elected to Congress. So he told his constituents they could all go to hell, and he would go to Texas.

Off he went. His death at the Alamo put just the right finishing touch to his own vigorous legend. Once the real Crockett was dead, the heroic buffoon and folk character took over, via the Crockett Almanacs, issued from 1835 to 1856. In them ghost writers attempted to fit humans and animals of Homer's proportions into the raw, gigantic, American landscape. Bumptious Davy mastered with ridiculous ease the cruel frontier world and the snarling beasts that dwelt in it. He made jokes of situations which too often were tragic; he mastered the impossible effortlessly. The backwoods became a fairyland.

In it the fairies played rough. Fed on Buffalo milk and weaned on whiskey, Davy sprouted so that his Aunt Keziah thought it was as good as a day's vittles to look at him. The animals finally stopped trying to defy him. "Is that you, Davy?" they would shout when he reached for his gun. "Yep," he would say. "All right, don't shoot. Can't you take a joke? I'm a-comin' down!"

Most Crockett tall tales were based on oral tradition going back to Daniel Boone. They are conscious inversions. Pranks, practical jokes, and boasts seemed beneath Boone. So a Davy Crockett who specialized in these very things was invented. His hero-makers were mostly Whig politicians, who saw that by using Crockett they might split the Jacksonians in the west.

People wanted to hear about that rascal Davy long after his political mission was forgotten. And they kept talking about him, until he got to be a hero. A paradox runs throughout his career: although he won fame because of his horse sense, he endured in folklore because of the nonsense written about him. Settling the frontier was grim business; Indians took real scalps. As often as not the people there laughed, as Mark Twain observed, so that they would not cry.

Hence there is almost a hysterical note to the accumulated gusto which gave us Davy Crockett. There is also poetic justice; for he is the necessary complement to the brooding Boone, rounding out the most genuinely American myth which our culture has yet created.

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