An entertaining deconstruction of the ‘Heroic Anglo Narrative’
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
‘Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth’, is a book with multiple authors. That conceit makes it hard to discern who’s talking to you in the book, when, and why, but it’s never particularly awkward. They meld their styles together into a kind of generic, Quality Magazine Article voice. The book makes the case, quite strongly, that we really shouldn’t consider the Alamo a symbol of individual liberty and the Texas fighting spirit, but rather as an outgrowth of the Confederacy, as dated and problematic as a statue of Stonewall Jackson in a downtown square. There’s a reason it’s getting a lot of attention.
‘Forget the Alamo’ has some political urgency, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Other than the occasional aside, it’s not particularly didactic. I’m not familiar with Chris Tomlinson, a Texas journalist, or Jason Stanford, an Austin-based Democratic political operative, but Bryan Burrough, the other co-author, isn’t beholden to any one point of view. His last book, the excellent Days of Rage, about toxic fringe American radicals in the 70s and 80s, infuriated the far left as much as his current book is going to infuriate the far right.
The authors challenge what they call the “Heroic Anglo Narrative” of Texas’s founding, a myth that pervades Texas’s schools, culture, and international reputation. They spend the first 30 to 40 percent of the book retelling the story of the Alamo from a revisionist point of view. Santa Anna was no savior, but he also wasn’t the bloodthirsty “greaser” fascist as old-school history books portray him. In fact, he was anti-slavery, as was all the Mexican elite. ‘Forget the Alamo’ makes a strong and unsurprising case that the war for Texas independence was basically an opening salvo of the U.S. Civil War.
As the authors dig into the history, the Holy Trinity of the Alamo—Jim Bowie, Colonel William Travis, and Davy Crockett—all come up wanting. As the authors write at the book’s conclusion, “Bowie was a murderer, slaver, and con man; Travis was a pompous, racist agitator and syphilitic lech; and Crockett was a self-promoting old fool who was captive to his own myth.” Harsh. Sam Houston doesn’t exactly get a pass either, but they never take down the Father of Texas quite like that.
Davy Crockett, in particular, comes in for a hide-whupping in ‘Forget The Alamo’. Not only did he die like a coward, not a hero, he wasn’t even from Texas. His appearance at the Alamo battle was a historical coincidence, they say, as though Mark Twain had stumbled onto the Titanic, or Bob Hope had happened to be vacationing at Pearl Harbor. In my personal favorite section of book, they destroy Walt Disney’s absurd Davy Crockett coonskin cap craze of the 1950s, and the ludicrous Fess Parker miniseries that accompanied it. My parents used to play that theme song for me when I was a toddler in Tennessee, and I’m happy to see it get the boot in Forget The Alamo. Crockett did, however, kill bears.
The authors make it clear that the defenders of the Alamo believed in individual liberty and freedom. They don’t discount that. But that’s not some sort of quality that’s unique to Texas or Texans. They also point out that the Alamo had its Tejano defenders, and they, too, believed in individual liberty. The book argues for a broader understanding of liberty, who deserves it (everyone), and why.
But ‘Forget the Alamo’ isn’t a book of history, and its authors aren’t historians. After 120 or so pages of a somewhat breezy retelling of the Texas Founding Myth, the book gets really interesting. The next third is a fascinating account of the history of the Alamo post-Texas statehood. It shows that the meaning of the Alamo site, and the battle itself, remains a source of hot debate, and has been all along. In the 1970s, as Latin-American and feminist historians began to sink their teeth into the founding myth, it became clear that the Alamo meant a lot of things to a lot of people, not all of them good.
So why this book, and why now? Well, as the final sections of the book show, Texas is still bandying about how to revamp the pathetic and always-decaying site of the Alamo, America’s most physically rotten major historic tourist destination. If Civil War battlefields can get the royal treatment while acknowledging the legacy of slavery, and Philadelphia can keep the Liberty Bell pristine, then why not The Alamo? Donald Trump weirdly referred to the “beautiful, beautiful Alamo” in his last State of the Union address as a kind of dog whistle to his most passionate “American heritage” supporters. Radical protesters and militia squared off in a non-violent Battle of the Alamo during the post-George Floyd protests in June of 2020. Clearly, it’s still a political flashpoint, and the phrase “Remember the Alamo” continues to contain code for more than “defend your property.”
This entertaining and enlightening book will surely enter as evidence into Texas’s ongoing curricular debates about its history, heritage, and culture. The multiple bylines give it a somewhat generic feel. And I wish they’d spent more time talking about the fact that Texas built the Alamo complex on the site of a Native American burial ground, and that a significant civil-rights protest site, a Woolworth’s lunch counter, is located nearby. The authors mention those things in the back nine of the book, but other material drowns it out.
Admittedly, some of that material is a juicy and fun section on how musician Phil Collins collects probably fraudulent Alamo artifacts, placing him in the middle of a skirmish in America’s ongoing identity struggles. Collins comes off like a goof and a dupe, and Texas is happy to take his money. It’s yet another chapter in The Alamo’s weird history.
Once all the culture-war hubbub over Critical Race Theory and antiracism clears, documents like ‘Forget the Alamo’ will remain to set the record straight about our history. It’s a book that probably couldn’t have existed even 10 years ago, but here it is now. Like Tom Hanks writing about how we should teach the history of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in school, the authors have done their part to advance the historical narrative.
‘Forget The Alamo’ is sharp and clear-eyed. Texas, which forces every middle-school and high-school student to sit through boring, dated, generic Texas history classes, should make it required reading. But I wouldn’t count on that.
(Penguin RandomHouse, June 8, 2021)