Shoot the Messenger

So what if I’m a respected professor and an award-winning author (not to mention a grown-up)? When I talk about Texas history with seventh graders, I often feel as if I’m under siege at the Alamo. And they show me no mercy.

I KNEW I WAS IN TROUBLE when the seventh graders started making me nervous. They shouldn’t have; they were, after all, only middle school kids forced to take a year of Texas history. A handful in the back played it cool, conspicuously unimpressed by the visiting history professor and disdaining the day’s special activity. But most were as innocently earnest as youth can be. Their faces shone while they shuffled their note cards, which held the questions they had been assigned to formulate. By outward appearance, they weren’t anyone’s idea of an intellectual hit squad.

But what did I know? I had never claimed to be an expert in Texas history, and writing a book about the Texas Revolution, Lone Star Nation, simply revealed to me the extent of my ignorance. It wasn’t even my idea; my New York publisher, in the flush of George W. Bush’s inauguration as president and amid his soaring public-approval ratings following September 11, 2001, thought America was ready for a book about Texas. I wasn’t so sure. I had never questioned the dramatic value of the events surrounding the Battle of the Alamo, and I thought if I did reasonable justice to the story, the book would sell well in Texas. But elsewhere? I had to be persuaded. An attractive advance did the trick, and I set to work.

I began having second thoughts when a preliminary piece, titled “ The Alamo Should Never Have Happened,” appeared in this magazine in  March 2003. I suggested that the Texas defenders squandered manpower trying to protect a post that wouldn’t have done them any good had they held it and that Santa Anna lost time, troops, and moral standing by insisting on crushing the garrison there. I knew some people would be provoked, but I thought the fact that Sam Houston shared my view—he tried to have the Alamo evacuated before the siege began—would afford me some shelter. It didn’t. I was damned for an ignorant Yankee who knew nothing about Texas, history, or human nature.

I finished writing the book with understandable trepidation. If a five-page article could stir such passions, what would a five-hundred-page book do? Friends unfamiliar with Texas public higher education suggested a sabbatical to coincide with its release, to put a certain distance between me and the more irate readers. (The University of Texas at Austin, sadly, doesn’t provide sabbaticals for its tenured professors.) A few went so far as to recommend a writer’s version of a witness-protection program.

But to my surprise, the response was less vehement than I had expected. The comparative calm owed partly, I assumed, to the circumstance that the book allowed me the length to develop my arguments more fully. But it also reflected something I hadn’t anticipated at all. Many readers of history like their heroes to be heroes and their villains villains, with as little commingling as possible. I had assumed that my Texas readers might take offense at learning of the checkered—to put it mildly—backgrounds of such icons as William Barret Travis and James Bowie.

Instead, many readers positively reveled in the dastardly Travis, who abandoned a child and a pregnant wife to travel to Texas and who kept a scorecard of his romantic conquests, and Bowie, a slave smuggler and Enron-class business fraud. A central lesson of the Alamo was that humans can find redemption here below, by some brave and selfless act in the final moments of life. The sinner becomes a saint, and the graver the sin, the greater the glory.

The muted response to the book also had something to do with the circumstance that on the really incendiary issues, I tactfully waffled. I had envisioned prospective purchasers walking into bookstores, pulling my book from the shelf, and turning to the part where Davy Crockett dies. If my rendition of his death matched theirs, they might buy the book; if not, they would slam it down and storm off.

On this topic, there’s no safe side. To contend that Crockett was captured and executed after the battle, as José Enrique de la Peña’s eyewitness account of the campaign asserts, is to question Crockett’s courage and, by implication, the validity of the entire Alamo project. Having impugned the wisdom, if not the courage, of the defenders before, I saw no reason to repeat myself. But to reject de la Peña’s version is, in the minds of certain others, to deny the legitimacy of a Mexican perspective on the Texas war, with the ethnocentric and perhaps racist implications such denial entails.

So I did the only thing an honest historian could do under the circumstances: I hid behind my sources. The most-contemporary accounts of Crockett’s death contradict one another. Some have him dying in the battle; others execute him afterward. I laid out the dueling versions and let readers decide for themselves. I did allow myself a flippant footnote about why anyone would get so worked up about a matter of such little significance in the large scheme, but even that failed to provoke any but the really invested (on both sides of the issue). To a degree I hadn’t anticipated, most readers were willing to live with the uncertainty.

Not so the seventh graders. Some native Texans claim distinction on account of having been born here; the naturalized and resident aliens (from all countries, including the United States) are clumped into a lesser category. The most meaningful divide, however, isn’t between the native born and the immigrants but between those who were here at puberty—precisely, in September of their thirteenth year—and those who arrived later.

I don’t know enough of the history of Texas public education to be able to say whether the timing is deliberate, but it would be an odd accident if the teaching of Texas history to middle school students at just the moment of life when Christian children are being confirmed and Jewish kids bar (and bat) mitzvahed is simply a coincidence. The seventh-grade Texas history class is as much a rite of passage, an

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