Posted by: lcm | August 24, 2011

Tool with a soul

The face that launched a thousand lunchboxes:
Davy Crockett was kind of a tool


In the midst of a recent dialect-literature reading binge, focusing primarily on American frontier literature of the “Old Southwestern” variety, I ended up spending more time than I intended on The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee, Written by Himself (1834). It is available for free online, and although I am linking to it, I do not want it to be interpreted that I necessarily recommend this book. As its title announces, it was (ostensibly) authored by the celebrated frontiersman-turned-congressman David “Davy” Crockett (1786-1836) but in actuality it was probably written by Thomas Chilton, Crockett’s friend, roommate, and fellow member of Congress. Artistically, it doesn’t have much to recommend it, although if you enjoy tall tales with frontier settings, and you don’t mind some politics mixed up with your entertainment, you might like it.

Crockett fought under the command of then-General Andrew Jackson in the Creek War (1813-14) and ran for Congress in 1824 (he lost) and again in 1826 (successfully) as a Jacksonian Democrat. To oversimplify this ridiculously, Jacksonian Democrats professed to favor working people over the wealthy, the separation of church and state, and the popular vote. Later, however, he broke with Jackson, a split usually attributed primarily to Crockett’s opposition to Jackson’s draconian policies toward Native Americans, and joined the Whig party. The Whigs hoped that Crockett’s humble beginnings and romantic frontiersman image would make him a serious challenger to the powerful and iconic Jackson, who was seen by his supporters as a champion of the “common man” against the powerful and moneyed elite. Jackson had received minimal education, fought in the Revolutionary War at age 13, and was orphaned at 14, and his subsequent rise to power and legendary bad-assery made him an extraordinarily popular if also a controversial and highly polarizing figure.

The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is a campaign autobiography and a pretty early representative of the genre. Published in 1834, it precedes by a year Augustus Baldwin Longstreet‘s Georgia Scenes (1835), an early and highly influential contribution to the 19th-century American literary subgenre known as Old Southwestern humor. Georgia Scenes is widely acknowledged as a prototypical text in that tradition as well as in the trend toward realistic fiction that emerged later in the century. The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is not necessarily the first thing I would think of when I’m on the topic of Old Southwestern humor (which I am quite often), but it turns out to be a fair (and early) example of the genre, except that it’s pretty short on the humor part.

But then, being short on humor is apparently no disqualification. Just as the setting for Old Southwestern humor is not what anyone would consider “Southwestern” these days, I have my doubts as to whether anyone would actually consider it humor. Most of it ranges from the “uh, OK” level of humor to the pretty horribly offensive kind: racism, violence, cruelty to animals, etc. But it is at least sort of old, enjoying a decent run of popularity from the early 1830s to the 1860s.

Anyway, in the mid-19th century, the “Old Southwest” referred to inland regions of what is now the southeastern U.S., including Alabama, Tennessee, and the western parts of Georgia and the Carolinas, as well as a few then-new Southern states further west that were more recently settled, i.e. Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. The map below from about 1800 shows U.S. territory as of 1783, per the Treaty of Paris, the agreement between the U.S. and Britain that officially ended the Revolutionary War. What would have comprised the Old Southwest in the 1830s-60s is (crudely) marked in orange. (Don’t worry; the marks are on the digital image, not the original map.)

US map (1783)

The addition of these new states, part of a long-term project of westward expansion that began with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, redefined what constituted “the West” in the United States, hence the “old” modifier in “Old Southwestern,” meaning that Old Southwestern humor was already a nostalgia genre as early as the 1830s. Featuring frontier settings, exaggerated folk-heroic characters, and vernacular speech, Old Southwestern humor is a minor genre in the overall scheme of American literature, although it was popular in its day, and as I mentioned earlier, was influential on some rather more significant literary trends and genres, as well as on the work of several major American authors.

The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett shares with the Old Southwestern tradition its frontier backdrop, attempts at representing dialectal speech visually, a larger-than-life backwoodsman protagonist, and as Mark Twain might have put it, some “stretchers.” For example, in a lengthy exposition on how he spent his time off during a congressional term for which he was not re-elected, Crockett describes having killed 105 bears in a single winter. However, the Narrative‘s deployment of vernacular speech does not incorporate many of the techniques that became conventional in the genre, largely popularized if not actually pioneered by Longstreet in Georgia Scenes, although it does incorporate some nonstandard linguistic features, most of them grammatical (for example, regularized past-tense knowed appears 57 times in the Narrative compared to 16 occurrences of knew).

Later writers tended to rely on more overtly visual cues to signal a vernacular speaker’s otherness, linguistic and otherwise, especially by respelling words to represent nonstandard pronunciations. In The Conjure Woman (1899), for example, Charles W. Chesnutt writes befo’ to indicate a character’s pronunciation of before with postvocalic /r/ deletion. Some authors in the 19th century, including Chesnutt, used literary dialect — that is, visual/textual representations that attempt to capture the qualities of real speech, especially stigmatized varieties and features — as a device to portray language realistically, although that reality was usually articulated from a white, middle class vantage point (as evidenced by the rarity of white, middle- and upper-class characters represented as speaking anything but the standard). But as the example of Chesnutt — who was African American — indicates, the deployment of literary dialect was not limited to white authors, especially toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, although a white reading audience was generally considered a requirement for commercial success.

In other cases, some authors have been known to respell words even when the respellings signal no pronunciation difference, simply as a device to make visible a character’s low social status, lack of education, prestige, material resources, preferred ethnicity, etc. An example is William Faulkner’s spelling of what as whut in the speech of a lower-class African American character, Louis Hatcher, in The Sound and the Fury. It’s worth pointing out, though, that although in many of his works Faulkner does represent African American and lower-class white speech by using respellings and nonstandard grammatical constructions, his respellings most often do correspond to actual phonological — that is, pronunciation — variation. Respellings to mark otherness without signaling any actual linguistic variation is not typical in his work, and — as I have discussed elsewhere — when it does occur, it seems to be doing a different kind of work from simply marking a speaker as other. (Of course, the question of why Faulkner — or any author — would elect to represent the speech of African American speakers and lower-class whites — and only those speakers — as dialectal at all is a perfectly legitimate one.)

Because of the association of vernacular speech with low-status speakers, the application of literary dialect, and especially the kind of other-marking associated with nonphonetic respellings, does not generally function to enhance the stature of characters whose speech is rendered dialectally. So it might seem strange for the Narrative to traffic in this particular device when enhancing Crockett’s stature is precisely the goal, although the nonphonetic respellings are relatively infrequent and perhaps innocent. By “innocent,” I mean if Crockett actually penned parts of the Narrative himself, claims to which effect have been made despite his extremely limited schooling and, consequently, what had to be limited facility in writing, these examples might be his own original spellings. They include choaked for choked, did’ent for didn’t, harricane for hurricane, and mockasin for moccasin.

The OED contains no evidence of the harricane spelling as a common variant at any time, although it documents numerous variant spellings for moccasin, including mockasin, until around 1800, from which point the present-day standard moccasin variant seems to have prevailed. My guess is that the mockasin spelling in the Narrative is either a pronunciation spelling of Crockett’s or a deliberate reminder (in the service of his challenge to the Jacksonian archetype) of his limited education, designed to show how far he has come. Harricane may similarly be a pronunciation spelling, but if it is, it functions somewhat differently from the mockasin spelling in that it indicates a stigmatized pronunciation, lowering to [ɑr] in the first syllable where [ər] is standard, at least as of later Early Modern English, anyway, and especially in American English. Renderings of [ɑr]-lowering are a common — if stereotyped feature — in written representations of Appalachian English, and therefore it is not surprising to find it in a representation of Crockett’s speech given his East Tennessee provenance, and it may have been a pronunciation he actually used. In other words, if these spellings are original to Crockett himself and not artistically licensed inventions, either they slipped by Chilton uncorrected, or they were deliberately left in as a way to try to bolster a public image of Crockett as an icon of the “common man” archetype, in this case by highlighting his own minimal education.

This is a tricky position for the author(s) to have been in, especially since the goal of the Narrative as articulated in the preface was to promote Crockett’s public image and particularly to counter the perception that he was something of an illiterate bumpkin. And in fact, in the preface to the Narrative, Crockett reveals his outrage over what he considers misrepresentations of his character as well as an acute language consciousness that seems to contradict the way his speech is represented in the text that follows. His indignation, expressed completely without irony and in a rhetorical style that is almost certainly Chilton’s and not his own, reveals fairly typical mainstream (e.g. racist, classist) language attitudes of his time (although, sadly, they haven’t evolved a whole lot in the ensuing 175-plus years). The preface makes clear that the Narrative means to counter a public image problem deriving from literary caricatures of Crockett that had recently appeared, with his most likely provocateur the 1833 volume Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee, published anonymously but most likely written by Mathew St. Clair Clarke (although authorship has also been attributed to James Strange French). In the preface to the Narrative, Crockett (that is, Chilton) writes:

If the author had been content to have written his opinions about me, however contemptuous they might have been, I should have had less reason to complain. But when he professes to give my narrative (as he often does) in my own language, and then puts into my mouth such language as would disgrace even an outlandish African, he must himself be sensible of the injustice he has done me, and the trick he has played off on the publick. I have met with hundreds, if not with thousands of people, who have formed their opinions of my appearance, habits, language, and every thing else from that deceptive work.

Now, I haven’t yet conducted a comparative analysis of the ways that Crockett’s speech is represented in the two texts, but I am looking forward to that project and to seeing whether there are any substantial differences between the ways his speech is represented in Sketches and Eccentricities versus the Narrative. But at this point — and I should qualify this by saying that so far I have done only an abbreviated, impressionistic eyeballing of the texts — I am not feeling particularly sympathetic, since he seems to have no reservations whatsoever about presenting himself (or authorizing Chilton to do so) as using stigmatized features — especially grammatical features — when it suits his purposes, which is seems to do in the Narrative.

It has been nearly two months since I started working on what has turned into my Davy Crockett problem, and part of what has been so difficult about trying to figure this guy out is dealing with the astonishing amount of propaganda that is still out there, still mythologizing and aggrandizing Crockett to the point that he probably wouldn’t even recognize himself. When I first read the Narrative back in early July, I wrote about it in a Facebook conversation with my friend Gwen, which opened thusly:

Davy Crockett was such an unbelievable tool that he almost makes you feel a little sympathy for Andrew Jackson.

I have since had time to take a more nuanced approach.

However, I stand by my initial claim that Rep. Crockett was in fact a tool, but I will now acknowledge that he was also more complicated than that, that even a tool can have a soul. Crockett’s surfaces in the evolution of his position on the treatment of Native Americans. I don’t think that lets him off the hook for atrocities he almost certainly committed during the Creek War, but after spending the last nearly two months now trying to figure out what to do with this guy, I am releasing this post into the wild and wishing the myth of David “Davy” Crockett all the best.


You know the drill by now: The usual disclaimer applies. I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

All images in this post are in the public domain.


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