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From Barnes & NobleOur Review
Remember the Alamo! Even today, few events in our nation's past arouse more patriotic fervor than the fate of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis, and their compatriots, gunned down in the Alamo at dawn, March 6, 1836. They live in history and myth. But how much history, and how much myth? In their rewarding book, Randy Roberts and James Olson shatter popular illusions and prove that over 165 years, myth has shaped and finally overwhelmed history. Further, through productive research and persuasive reporting, these investigative historians illustrate that at many levels the battle of the Alamo is still being fought.
The Americans who flocked into the Mexican state of Texas were far from the best and the bravest. Many were land-grant manipulators and speculators; not a few were slave traders, bankrupts, or ne'er-do-wells. Their common goal was a potent desire to wrest Texas from the distant, ineffectual federal government in Mexico City.
As the authors demonstrate, the picaresque "Napoleon of the West," as the Mexican president-dictator-generalissimo Santa Anna fatuously styled himself, was no more honorable than the secession-preaching Americans he fought. Resources, not brilliance, finally brought him and his army to the Alamo. Without doubt, the American defenders of the mission-turned-fort willingly chose certain death over flight -- and fought with exemplary courage. Thereafter, patriotism wrote much of the record. Whether Davy Crockett rose from his sickbed to battle his assailants, or surrendered to Santa Anna, or was among the seven survivors shot on Santa Anna's orders remain open questions.
Patriotism was soon threatened by real-estate development. The authors provide a valuable account of the almost destroyed Alamo site, finally saved in the 1890s through the competing efforts of the popularist Adina de Zavala and the patrician Clara Driscoll. To them we owe both the Alamo's reconstruction and the great patriotic myth entwined with it.
The book's most interesting chapters deal with the film exploitation of the Alamo story. Through his famous three-part TV spectacular in 1954-55, Walt Disney hijacked the Alamo incident, mass-merchandising it to the American public as the basic fare of patriotism. In 1960, the dutiful John Wayne added to this high-protein diet with The Alamo, epic in what it took to make and market it rather than in what audiences sat through. To all purposes, the Alamo had become a weapon in the Cold War. Most recently, it has become a battlefield in American-Mexican relations and among Anglo and Hispanic Texans. Just what values does the Alamo story, as written or depicted, present? Who has been trashing whom and what should be done about it is still hotly debated in revisionist writings and in Texas politics. It is regrettable that the remarkable campaign journal of José Enrique de la Peña (one of Santa Anna's lieutenants) was not widely known earlier and that his remark, "It is important to avoid partiality if one wants to be believed," was not a guiding beacon for pioneer Alamo chroniclers.
Peter Skinner lives in New York City.