Thursday, September 27, 2007

CWL---The Art of Historical Detection and The Alamo

Sleuthing the Alamo: Davy Crockett's Last Stand and Other Mysteries of the Texas Revolution, James E. Crisp, Oxford University Press, b/w illustrations, 4 color plates, 1 map, bibliography of further readings, 228 pp., $23.00 hardcover, $16.00 paperback.

What makes James E. Crip's Sleuthing The Alamo remarkable is the effectively clear and concise treatment of what could have been a dry-as-parchment tale. Archival detective work is not fast paced; yet Crisp's non-intrusive presence in the book moves the stories along and adds a degree of suspense to what is essentially academic enterprise.

Racism and abusive language is prevalent in the book. Crisp recovers the history of when 'brown became bad' in the story of the Alamo and sharply draws a line in the sand after the Texas Revolution. Dealing with a Sam Huston speech made at the beginning of the war, he pares away the generational layers of translation and editing to reveal Sam Huston as respectful and humane towards blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. Racism, Crisp understands, came in with the new wave of immigration after the Texas Revolution. The steady influx of Southerners with slaves or with the desire to soon buy slaves caused a rise in Texas' disregard for Mexicans.
Also, before and during the revolution, the inhabitants of Texas understood them selves to be Texicans and most closely aligned with the Mexican state of Coahuila, that contained the northern parts of both the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers. In the final chapter Crisp presents a story of art history and the depiction of Santa Ana's army. Using four famous turn of the 20th century paintings of the Alamo and Little Big Horn and the patron who commissioned them, Crisp reveals that an amateur historian to be at the center of the popular graphic representation of these battles.

The abusive language comes in the form email and letters to himself and other historians who have taken Davey Crockett's death from the ramparts of the Disney movie and placed it the Alamo's courtyard. By thoroughly re-constituting the original documents written by those in the Mexican army, he finds that it is very likely Crockett was captured alive but immediately executed with saber slashes along with five others. Crisp reviews the historiography of Crockett's death and how it reflects the climate of the times.

Crisp dwells upon the nature of the past, history, anthropology and the unique tasks of the storyteller, the historian and the anthropologist. In the book's chapter, The Silence of the Yellow Rose, Crisp succinctly dwells upon voices held within the documents that that were not captured in documents and in documents that are currently being recovered in estate auctions and unarchived collections of libraries.

Crisp's book is 200 pages, in a small format, and appears to be printed to fit snugly in a briefcase. CWL read this book on a toru bus, on the lawn of the Smithsonian and in the Menger Hotel's bar in San Antonio Texas, the exit of which faces the Alamo. The chapter are short and sharp; getting right to the point, Crisp's narrative style carries the elements of pursuit and suspense well. His book will satisfy upper level and graduate school students as well at the history reader who open to reading about how history is written and rewritten, discovered and rediscovered.

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