Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Recalling the Alamo differently
by Olin Chism
"Remember the Alamo" is the most famous of all Texas slogans.
But what, exactly, are we to remember?
That a band of noble defenders held out for 13 days against the overwhelming might of an oppressive regime and then died a glorious death for the cause of liberty?
Or, perhaps, that a gang of racist land-grabbers and mercenaries got their just desserts when the army of a legally constituted government put down their impudent rebellion?
This and other provocative questions will be discussed by three Texas writers Friday night at the Dallas Museum of Art. "Dibs on the Alamo: Three Writers, One Revolution" will be a presentation of Arts & Letters Live.
The three writers are Elizabeth Crook, Stephen Harrigan and Jeff Long. Each has written, or is writing, a book about the Texas revolution. Their research has given them ideas that Texas patriots might find objectionable.
Mr. Long raised the heckles of the Daughters of the Texas Revolution in 1990 with Duel of Eagles, which questioned favorite veracities of traditional Texas historians. His Empire of Bones: A Novel of the Texas Revolution followed in 1992. Mr. Long lives in Colorado but is a native of Texas.
Ms. Crook's The Raven's Bride, about the brief first marriage of Sam Houston, came out in 1991. Promised Lands, her second novel, has just been released. Mr. Harrigan is at work on his own novel of the Texas revolution. He hopes to have it finished in a year. Both Ms. Crook and Mr. Harrigan live in Austin.
Although all three writers are dealing with the same subject, they are buddies, not rivals. They share research, argue points, read each other's manuscripts and make suggestions. They've even divided up the territory: Mr. Harrigan is the Alamo specialist, Ms. Crook has dibs on Goliad, and Mr. Long is a San Jacinto man. Between them, they have the three major incidents of the Texas revolution covered.
Just how provocative are their views? Mr. Long thinks the Texas revolution was "a land grab" that "would almost put Donald trump to shame." Take that, DRT.
"It's interesting for me to see how the DRT is trying to 'colorize' the Alamo now, and include more ethnic folks," says Mr. Long. "I just don't buy it myself. There were several Hispanics (among the Alamo's defenders), but the fact of the matter is there was no broad-based Hispanic support for what we call the Texas revolution. In fact, I think calling it a revolution is being pretty kind."
Mr. Long sees the Texas revolution as "the birthplace of manifest destiny . . . My reason for selecting the battle of San Jacinto was because it's there that the American mind first conceived, first ratified and sort of anointed the idea of expansion through conquest. Up to that point, we'd expanded, but it was largely through treaty and through purchase.
"I'm talking about dealing with sovereign nations, not Indian tribes, who we were taking land away from right and left.
"My reading of Texas history is that without the Texas revolution, we would not have launched into our acquisition of California and all that other Western territory in the way we did."
Why has the Alamo emerged as the predominant symbol of the Texas revolution, and not one of the other battles? Ms. Crook thinks it's because "at the Alamo, they went down swinging, whereas at Goliad, they had surrendered." (The defenders at Goliad were summarily executed by the Mexican army after their surrender.)
"War has traditionally been written about by men, who value the concept of going down swinging. This was a group of men (at Goliad) who made the decision to surrender, and nobody has taken the trouble to dramatize the story. From the Mexican view, it was not glamorous because it was an atrocity. From the Texans' view, it was not glamorous because these were men who had lost an ill-fated and ill-planned battle and surrendered.
"They were losers -- they were losers who were taken out and shot -- and nobody finds much glory in that.
"But to me, pathos is more compelling that glory."
Mr. Harrigan agrees with Ms. Crook's assessment of the battles. "Goliad was just a flat-out massacre. To a degree, San Jacinto was a massacre as well -- but this time the Norte Americans massacred the Mexicans. The Alamo had a kind of almost supernatural resonance almost from the beginning. It was sort of mythologized from Day One. I think there was really a kind of concerted effort by everybody involved to make it a symbol."
Were there any real heroes in the Texas revolution? Both Mr. Long and Ms. Crook like Sam Houston.
"In my opinion, he was a very great man," Mr. Long says. "He was sort of a buckskinned I, Claudius, a frontier genius. He had enormous charisma, a rampant imagination, and I think he had a moral conscience ahead of his time. One thing you have to be very careful about is not to impose 20th-century standards on a 19th-century mentality. With Sam Houston, you have almost a 20th-century mentality. He's just a remarkable character."
Ms. Crook says that although she would have walked out on San Houston if she'd been married to him, as his first wife did, he was an honorable man in many ways. She likes the fact that he resigned the governorship of Texas rather than join the Confederacy.
Mr. Harrigan, on the other hand, likes both Davy Crockett and Santa Anna -- Crockett because "he was someone looking for new beginnings" and Santa Anna because "he was a fascinating character, sort of the Noriega of his time." He emphasizes that he's speaking from the fiction writer's standpoint, not making moral judgments.
What will our future view of these famous Texans be?
"I think that we will develop a level of sophistication in which we can accept the fact that our heroes were flawed," Ms. Crook believes. "To me, it's the complexity that makes them interesting. Our heroes have become so whitewashed that they've become dull. It's the shadows around the edges that give them interest to me.
We will drop this silly defense that our heroes were all perfect people. We will say that many of these people did brave things even though their motives were bad. We will say that they were courageous even though they were greedy.
"That's just the way people are, that's just the way they act."