Editor’s Note: Bob Thompson grew up in New England and studied history at Stanford University. He spent twenty-four years at the Washington Post, where he edited the Sunday Magazine, wrote profiles for the Style section, and developed a particular interest in bringing complex historical narratives to life. He bought his first coonskin cap in 2010 – having somehow missed the opportunity as a child – and “Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier ” is his first book.
Americans today are drowning in celebrity culture. We take it so much for granted that we forget how hard our forefathers worked to invent it. Celebrity pioneer Davy Crockett, for example, became a mega-celeb in the 1830s – more than a century before Walt Disney, Fess Parker, and a new star-making machine called television teamed up to make every kid in the country crave a coonskin cap. It was a stunning achievement for a boy who started out poor and anonymous, and if Davy were around today, some publisher would surely ask him to write a self-help book sharing what he'd learned. Here, then, is a ten-step outline for turning yourself into a mythic American hero.
Step One: Be a real frontiersman
Grow up in east Tennessee when it was still the Wild West. Run away from home and survive on your own for two years. Fall in love, get hitched and move west like so many other land-hungry pioneers. Fight Indians. Fail at farming. Succeed at hunting bears.
Sep Two: Get your political act together
Pay some dues as a militia colonel, justice of the peace, and state legislator. Keep your stump speeches short and funny, and establish a reputation for skewering Tennessee elites. Run for Congress as “the poor man's friend.”
Step Three: Have someone play you onstage, preferably in a furry hat
Never mind that the character is called Nimrod Wildfire – everyone will know who you are. Catch a performance in Washington as you're beginning your third term in the House. When the actor with the furry hat bows to you, stand up and return the bow.
Step Four: Inspire an unauthorized biography; then write up your own life
Tell your story straight, but let your backwoods humor shine through. Include page after page of hunting yarns. Don't mention the political task you're most passionate about (helping poor Tennessee squatters secure title to their lands), because you can't seem to get it done. Take some whacks at Andrew Jackson, whom you despise.
Step Five: Pioneer the political book tour
Hit the road in support of “A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee.” Get wined and dined in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and – of all the unlikely places for a bear-hunting frontier politician to turn up – the booming mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts. Let your friends in the Whig party pick up the tab. Oblige them by bashing President Jackson at every stop.
Step Six: Die a hero's death
Lose your next election to a Jackson man. Head west once more to restore your political and economic fortunes. Volunteer to fight for Texas independence. Ride into the wrong place at the wrong time – though it would have been the right place, if immortality had been your goal – and become the most famous man to die defending the Alamo.
Step Seven: Arrange for your legend to be posthumously exploited
Have your publisher gin up a fake “journal” that extends your autobiographical narrative right up to the day before your death. (Suggested last words: “Pop, pop, pop! Bom, bom, bom! throughout the day. – No time for memorandums now. – Go ahead! – Liberty and independence forever!”) Lend your name, as well, to twenty years' worth of Crockett almanacs. Fill them with tall tales about a nineteenth-century superhero who can “walk like an ox, run like a fox, swim like an eel, yell like an Indian, fight like a devil” and “make love like a mad bull,” not to mention leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Step Eight: Go Hollywood
Play the lead in a long-running nineteenth-century melodrama called Davy Crockett; or, Be Sure You're Right, Then Go Ahead that has almost nothing to do with your real life. Never mind: You get the girl in the end. Then watch this story get turned into a silent movie – four times! Star in a bunch of other movies, too, including The Martyrs of the Alamo, or, The Birth of Texas, from the same studio that gave us Birth of a Nation.
Step Nine: Have Fess Parker play you on TV
Get someone to tell Walt Disney – who's looking for a Crockett for his new TV series – that he should check out James Arness in a 1954 science fiction hit about giant mutant ants. Be sure Disney notices the tall, dark-haired fellow playing a bit part as a mental patient, so Walt can exclaim, “That's our Davy Crockett!” Then make sure that Disney's director, who can't stand Parker's laid-back style, doesn't succeed in getting him fired.
Step Ten: Tell your story in song
Persuade the Disney TV team to put together an incredibly catchy theme song, which they need because they haven't shot quite enough footage to fill three shows. Have the first verse start with you being “born on a mountaintop,” even though you were really born on the banks of the Nolichucky River. Give the song a chorus that begins “Davy, DAY-VEE Crockett” and the next thing you know, you'll be King of the Wild Frontier.