Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier
Should the words “Born on a mountain top in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free” recall memories of your childhood, BORN ON A MOUNTAINTOP by Bob Thompson is a book that you will enjoy as both a fine biography and a wonderful essay capturing American life in the 1950s.
On December 15, 1954, the first of three television episodes recounting the life of frontiersman David Crockett (as he was known in life) appeared on the Disneyland series. By the time the final episode aired, ending with Crockett’s death at the Alamo, several unexpected events had come to pass. Fess Parker, the actor who portrayed him, was better known than President Eisenhower. Crockett memorabilia, including mock coonskin caps, recorded sales of more than $2.5 billion (in today’s dollars). Perhaps more important for Disney, the production company realized that they had killed their star far too early. While David Crockett was dead, Davy Crockett would live on. Sixty years later, the legend has not diminished one iota.
"Should the words 'Born on a mountain top in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free' recall memories of your childhood, BORN ON A MOUNTAINTOP by Bob Thompson is a book that you will enjoy as both a fine biography and a wonderful essay capturing American life in the 1950s."
Bob Thompson set out to travel across the America that Crockett travelled in life. Along the way, the author met the real Crockett and the myth that many accept as fact. In reality, there were three Crocketts: the real David, as he lived before he became famous; the celebrity politician whose backwoods image was self-created; and the mythic Crockett we know today created on the soundstages of Hollywood.
Travelling across America from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., through the northeastern states and on to Texas and the Alamo, Thompson traces Crockett’s life and those who revere the real David, as well as the legend, to learn how the real and the mythical became so closely intertwined. The mix of reporting and scholarship make BORN ON A MOUNTAINTOP captivating and irresistible to read.
David Crockett was a complex individual. He did fight American Indians but not single-handedly. He was a member of Congress opposing President Jackson on issues relating to Indian land but took different sides at different times. He went to Texas to seek his fortune, not to fight in a battle for democracy. Crockett was no different from many American historical figures. Even today, historians and Crockett aficionados vigorously debate how he died at the Alamo. Did he die fighting? Was he taken prisoner? Did he try to talk himself out of execution? For many, these are questions that may never be answered. Crockett was a nuanced and complex man, and just as with many historical figures, the legend eventually wins out over the facts.
Thompson’s work is far more than a traditional biography. Our nation loves to immortalize historical figures and events. The Crockett legend is interwoven with the Battle of the Alamo, which Americans have memorialized into mythical proportions. How this occurs is a central theme of BORN ON A MOUNTAINTOP. Thompson does not presume to answer this question; instead, he offers insight and analysis, leaving the ultimate answer where it should be --- with individual readers.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on March 22, 2013