Reading Along With James Donovan
The latest Alamo chronicler offers a glimpse of his reference library.
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In 2008, after Dallas author James Donovan hit the best-seller lists with his first book, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn, his editor, Geoff Shandler, asked what he wanted to write next. Donovan sent him a long proposal on the sinking of the Titanic. Shandler turned him down, saying he wanted Donovan to stay focused on the West. Thinking fast, Donovan said, “Well, there’s this thing that happened down here in 1836 called the Alamo.”
Shandler was delighted by the idea—apparently, even the hoariest Texas stories sound sexy to New Yorkers—and Donovan suddenly found himself immersed in our state’s pivotal event. The 57-year-old says that though it’s almost impossible to know what happened at the Alamo, he hopes The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo—and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation (Little, Brown, $29.99) will “scrape the myths and legends off this story.”
Although Alamo books continue to be published every year, from cheerful children’s literature (C.C. and the Alamo Cats) to oddly geographically specific memoirs (Now’s the Day and Now’s the Hour: Scotland Remembers the Alamo), Donovan says only a handful are genuinely important. Here are a half dozen works that he found particularly valuable:
1. The Alamo Reader, edited by Todd Hansen (Stackpole, 2003): “The one book any serious student of the battle must have is an 837-page compendium of source material—virtually every primary, secondary, or tertiary account, from newspaper stories and oral accounts to Mexican military after-action reports. A herculean feat of research and endlessly fascinating.”
2. With Santa Anna in Texas, by José Enrique de la Peña (Texas A&M University Press, 1975): “This translation of an 1840 ‘diary’ by a young Mexican army officer who was at the Alamo started the controversy over Davy Crockett’s death. De la Peña claimed that after the battle he saw ‘the naturalist David Crockett’ and several other prisoners brought before Santa Anna, who watched as they were put to the sword. But this anecdote was written—in a different hand—on a slip of paper that was inserted into the original manuscript. De la Peña admitted that he didn’t see all that he recounted; the book isn’t a diary but a reconstructed memoir that incorporated unconfirmed accounts gathered by other people. Still, he was an astute observer and an eloquent writer.”
3. “A Critical Study of the Siege of the Alamo and of the Personnel of Its Defenders,” by Amelia Williams (1933–1934): “This began as a doctoral dissertation, and a few of its chapters were originally published in modified form in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly in 1933 and 1934. I bought them at a book sale; I’ve got all five issues. Williams was the first to systematically mine republic and state records such as land grants, debt claims, and pension applications and uncover a significant amount of fresh information. Though some of her work is flawed, it’s been the starting point for serious research for more than seventy-five years—her list of Alamo defenders was officially adopted by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and remains definitive to this day, with some minor changes.”
4. Three Roads to the Alamo, by William C. Davis (HarperCollins, 1998): “Upon its publication, this book instantly became the best biography of each of the Alamo’s holy trinity: Bowie, Crockett, and Travis. It’s also a superb evocation of early-nineteenth-century America. Davis follows the lives of each man in alternating chapters until they join up at the Alamo. Its size—nearly eight hundred pages—may discourage some, but it’s a rewarding read.”
5. The Mexican Side of the Texas Revolution, 1836, translated and edited by Carlos Castañeda (P. L. Turner, 1928): “Castañeda [not to be confused with the famous author of the same name] was the librarian of the University of Texas’s Latin American collection, and in this book he translated extensive accounts of the battle by Santa Anna, his minister of war, his personal secretary, and two high-ranking generals. It’s somewhat lacking in the grunt’s-eye view, but still very useful.”
6. A Time to Stand, by Walter Lord (Harper and Row, 1961): “Lord practically invented the well-researched and lively ‘you are there’ school of narrative nonfiction that is standard today, and this is considered the most exciting account of the battle ever written. I read it years ago, before deciding to tackle the subject, but I didn’t read a word of it when I started my book. I didn’t want to be influenced—or daunted—by his brilliance.”