Saturday, August 17, 2013

"Born on a mountain top in Tennessee"

Back in 1955, I saw the new Disney movie Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier (starring Fess Parker as Davy Crockett) four times. Before the invention of the VCR, if one wanted to see a movie again, that meant either staying in the theater for the next showing or else coming back another time while the movie was still in the theaters. Eventually, a good "old" movie might reappear on TV - maybe all week long on "Million Dollar Movie" - but that would be some time off in the future and, of course, on Black-and-White TV. Besides seeing the popular movie multiple times, I also owned a coonskin cap, read a Davy Crockett comic book, and knew all the word to "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," which began:
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so's he knew ev'ry tree, kilt him a b'ar when he was only three
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!

I probably had only the foggiest idea then where Tennessee actually was, let alone imagined I might someday be living there!

The real Davy Crockett was born in Green County, Tennessee, on August 17, 1786. (That was the same year that what is now Knoxville was settled. In five years, Knoxville became the territorial capital. In another four, Tennessee became the 16th state). Crockett himself served in the Tennessee Militia in the War of 1812, fought against the Indians (who were allied with the British), then served in Congress in Washington, DC, finally famously ending his career at the Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio in what is now the state of Texas. Crockett's body and those of the other Alamo defenders were all burned by the Mexican military. It is believed that their ashes were later interred in the local church, now San Antonio's San Fernando Cathedral. A century later, their supposed remains were reburied in a marble sarcophagus now on display in the cathedral.

I don't ascribe a lot of significance to my boyish fascination with Davy Crockett. He was, after all, the kind of character boys were supposed to identify with (at least as he was portrayed on screen). Those were also the days when Westerns were a regular entertainment staple - both at the movies and on TV. Of course, in contrast to all those movies, mine was a totally urban life - a totally citified experience that had little in common with the "frontier," either as it really was or as it was romanticized on the screen. The frontier had centuries before migrated away from the east coast, and by Crockett's time it was already moving rapidly westward. Rural life persisted, of course, sometimes surprisingly close to urban centers. But the "frontier' had long since disappeared physically - even as it continued to loom large in American self-understanding. The "frontier" myth of the self-starting individual still survives. Indeed, it is at the core of so much of what ails America today.

The "frontier" was the great social safety valve that gave disgruntled individuals a place to go and maintained the mythology of egalitarianism (as well as a reality more egalitarian than in most of the rest of the world). While there were, of course, isolated individuals in the Wild West, there were plenty of families too. The trajectory of "frontier" history was as much about settlement and the construction of stable communities. Admittedly, such communities lacked the traditional, pre-modern structures of the European societies the settlers or their recent ancestors had abandoned, but they were authentic communities nonetheless. (That much was clear even in the old Westerns!)

Yet such is our fixation on freedom that we as a society seem to have retained only one part of the lesson of the "frontier" - the individualistic, destabilizing part - to our long-term loss.

As for Davy Crockett, he certainly did well for himself, but he didn't do it alone or spend most of his time on his own. He had a family and was sufficiently rooted in his community to be elected to Congress. Even his death was communitarian in character. He was taking part in a collective rebellion intended to create a new Anglo community (in a state which until then already had a well established, Spanish-speaking, Catholic government).

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