In the process of working on a book about manly men, language consciousness, and American English in early America, I often have occasion to indulge, if that is the right word for it, in dialect-literature reading binges, mostly in the area of American frontier literature of the "Old Southwestern” variety. At the outset of this project a couple of summers ago, I ended up getting sucked into and spending more time than I intended on one such volume: The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee, Written by Himself (1834). Although I am linking to it, I do not want it to be interpreted that I necessarily recommend this book. As its title announces, it was (ostensibly) authored by the celebrated frontiersman-turned-congressman David “Davy” Crockett (1786-1836) but in actuality it was probably written by Thomas Chilton, Crockett’s friend, roommate, and fellow member of Congress. Artistically, it doesn’t have much to recommend it, although if you enjoy tall tales with frontier settings, and you don’t mind some politics mixed up with your entertainment, you might like it.

Born in 1786 to impoverished parents in what became the state of Tennessee a decade later, Crockett endured a difficult childhood that included a stint as an indentured servant. His journey from obscurity to larger-than-life celebrity began during the Creek War (1813-14), when he fought under the command of then-General Andrew Jackson, whom he deeply admired. With a talent for politics and a folksy persona that proved effective on the campaign trail, Crockett ran for Congress in 1824 (he lost) and again in 1826 (successfully) as a Jacksonian Democrat. To oversimplify this ridiculously, Jacksonian Democrats professed to favor working people over the wealthy, the separation of church and state, and the popular vote.

Later, however, he broke with Jackson, a split attributed by most historians primarily to Crockett’s opposition to Jackson’s draconian policies toward Native Americans, and joined the Whig party. [1] The Whigs hoped that Crockett’s humble beginnings and romantic frontiersman image would make him a serious challenger to the powerful and iconic Jackson, who was marketed (and seen by his supporters) as a champion of the “common man” against the powerful and moneyed elite. Jackson had received minimal education, fought in the Revolutionary War at age 13, and was orphaned at 14, and his subsequent rise to power and legendary bad-assery made him an extraordinarily popular if also a controversial and highly polarizing figure whose reputation continues to be challenged (rightly) to this day.

The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is a campaign autobiography and a pretty early representative of the genre. Published in 1834, it precedes by a year Augustus Baldwin Longstreet‘s Georgia Scenes (1835), an early and influential contribution to the 19th-century American literary subgenre known as Old Southwestern humor. Georgia Scenes is widely acknowledged as a prototypical text in that tradition as well as in the trend toward realistic fiction that developed later in the century. The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is not necessarily the first thing I would think of when I’m on the topic of Southwestern humor (which I am quite often) these days, but it turns out to be a fair (and early) example of the genre, except that it’s pretty short on the 'humor' part.

But being short on humor is really no disqualification. Just as the setting for Southwestern humor is not what anyone would consider the Southwest these days, I have my doubts as to whether anyone would actually consider it humor. Most of it ranges from the “uh, OK” level of humor to the pretty horribly offensive kind: racism, violence, cruelty to animals, etc. [2]

Anyway, in the mid-19th century, the “Southwest” referred to inland regions of what is now the southeastern U.S., including Alabama, Tennessee, and the western parts of Georgia and the Carolinas, as well as a few then-new Southern states further west that were more recently settled, i.e., Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. The map below from about 1800 shows U.S. territory as of 1783, per the Treaty of Paris, the agreement between the U.S. and Britain that officially ended the Revolutionary War. What would have comprised the Southwest in the 1830s through 1850s, the heyday of Old Southwestern humor, is (crudely) marked in orange. (Don’t worry; the marks are on the digital image, not the original map.)

The addition of these new states, part of a long-term project of westward expansion that began with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, redefined what constituted “the West” in the United States, meaning that Southwestern humor was already a nostalgia genre as early as the 1830s. Featuring frontier settings, exaggerated folk-heroic characters, and vernacular speech, Southwestern humor is a minor genre in the overall scheme of American literature, although it was extremely popular in its day and influential on some rather more significant American literary trends and genres, as well as on the work of some important American authors, including heavy hitters like Mark Twain and William Faulkner.

The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett shares with the Southwestern humor tradition its frontier backdrop, attempts at representing dialectal speech visually, larger-than-life backwoodsman protagonist, and, as Mark Twain might have put it, some “stretchers.” For example, in a lengthy exposition on how he spent his time off during a congressional term for which he was not re-elected, Crockett describes having killed 105 bears in a single winter.

However, in its deployment of vernacular speech, the Narrative does not incorporate many of the techniques that were soon to become conventional in the genre, largely popularized if not actually pioneered by Longstreet in Georgia Scenes, although it does incorporate some nonstandard linguistic features in the speech its protagonist is represented as using, most of them grammatical. For example, regularized past-tense knowed appears 57 times in the Narrative, compared to 16 occurrences of knew.

Later writers in the Southwestern humor tradition, including Longstreet, relied more heavily on overtly visual cues to signal a vernacular speaker’s otherness, linguistic and otherwise, with the creative respelling of words a common trope for representing nonstandard pronunciations. In The Conjure Woman (1899), for example, Charles W. Chesnutt writes befo’ to indicate a character’s pronunciation of before with postvocalic /r/ deletion. Some authors in the 19th century, including Chesnutt, used literary dialect — that is, visual/textual representations that attempt to capture the qualities of "real" speech, especially stigmatized varieties and features — as a device to portray language realistically, although that reality was a subjective one that was usually articulated from a white, middle class vantage point (as evidenced by the rarity of white, middle- and upper-class characters represented as speaking anything but the standard). But as the example of Chesnutt — who was African American — indicates, the deployment of literary dialect was not limited to white authors, especially toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, although a white reading audience was generally considered a requirement for commercial success.

In other cases, some authors have been known to use "eye dialect," which is to respell words even when the respellings signal no pronunciation difference, simply as a device to make visible a character’s lack of social status, education, prestige, material resources, preferred ethnicity, etc. An example is William Faulkner’s spelling of what as whut in the speech of a working-class African American character, Louis Hatcher, in The Sound and the Fury. It may be worth pointing out, though, that although in many of his works Faulkner does represent African American and lower-class white speech by using respellings and nonstandard grammatical constructions, his respellings most often correspond to actual phonological (i.e., pronunciation) variation. Respellings to mark otherness without signaling any actual linguistic variation is not typical in his work, and — as I have discussed elsewhere [3] — when it does occur, it seems to be doing a different kind of work from simply marking a speaker as other. (Of course, the question of why Faulkner — or any author — would elect to represent the speech of African American speakers and lower-class whites — and only those speakers — as dialectal at all is a perfectly legitimate one.)

Because of the association of vernacular speech with low-status speakers, the application of literary dialect, and especially the kind of other-marking associated with nonphonetic respellings, does not generally function to enhance the stature of characters whose speech is rendered dialectally. So it might seem strange for the Narrative to traffic in this particular device when enhancing Crockett’s stature is precisely the goal, although the nonphonetic respellings are relatively infrequent and perhaps innocent. By “innocent,” I mean if Crockett actually penned parts of the Narrative himself, claims to which effect have been made despite his extremely limited schooling and, consequently, what had to be limited facility in writing, these examples might be his own original spellings. They include choaked for choked, did’ent for didn’t, harricane for hurricane, and mockasin for moccasin.

The Oxford English Dictionary contains no evidence of the harricane spelling as a common variant at any time, although it documents numerous variant spellings for moccasin, including mockasin, until around 1800, from which point the present-day standard moccasin variant seems to have prevailed. My guess is that the mockasin spelling in the Narrative is either a pronunciation spelling of Crockett’s or a deliberate reminder (in the service of his challenge to the Jacksonian archetype) of his limited education, designed to show how far he has come, in his own Jacksonian, bootstrappy way.

Harricane may similarly be a pronunciation spelling, but if it is, it functions somewhat differently from the mockasin spelling in that it indicates a stigmatized pronunciation: lowering to [ɑr] in the first syllable where [ər] is standard, at least as of later Early Modern English, anyway, and especially in American English. Renderings of [ər]-lowering have been a common — if stereotyped — feature in written representations of Appalachian English, so it is not surprising to find it in a representation of Crockett’s speech, given his East Tennessee provenance, and it may have been a pronunciation he actually used. [4] In other words, if these spellings are original to Crockett himself and not artistically licensed inventions, either they slipped by Chilton uncorrected, or they were deliberately left in as a way to try to bolster a public image of Crockett as an icon of the “common man” archetype, in this case by highlighting his own minimal education. [5]

This is a tricky position for the author(s) to have been in, especially since a central goal of the Narrative, if we are to take the preface at its word, was to promote Crockett’s public image and particularly to counter the perception that he was something of an illiterate bumpkin. And in fact, in the preface to the Narrative, Crockett reveals his outrage over what he considers misrepresentations of his character as well as an acute language consciousness that seems to contradict the way his speech is represented in the text that follows. His indignation, expressed completely without irony and in a rhetorical style that is undoubtedly Chilton’s and not his own, reveals fairly typical mainstream (e.g. racist, classist) language attitudes of his time (not that they've evolved a whole lot in the ensuing 175-plus years). The preface makes clear that the Narrative means to counter a public image problem deriving from literary caricatures of Crockett that had already begun to appear, with the most likely provocateur the 1833 volume Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee, published anonymously but most likely written by Mathew St. Clair Clarke (although authorship has also been attributed to James Strange French). In the preface to the Narrative, Crockett (that is, Chilton) writes:

If the author had been content to have written his opinions about me, however contemptuous they might have been, I should have had less reason to complain. But when he professes to give my narrative (as he often does) in my own language, and then puts into my mouth such language as would disgrace even an outlandish African, he must himself be sensible of the injustice he has done me, and the trick he has played off on the publick. I have met with hundreds, if not with thousands of people, who have formed their opinions of my appearance, habits, language, and every thing else from that deceptive work.

From the preface of The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett

To date, I haven’t conducted a comparative analysis of the ways that Crockett’s speech is represented in the two texts, and depending on where my research into the Narrative takes me, I may or may not end up doing one in order to see whether there are any substantive or relevant or interesting differences between the ways his speech is represented in Sketches and Eccentricities and how it is represented in the Narrative. At this point, I don't know that there is going to turn out to be a good enough reason to bother to do one, in part because Sketches and Eccentricities is probably not worth anyone's time, including mine, for reasons I'll get to in a second.

I will say this, though: With what I know so far — and I should qualify this by saying that my observations here are based on an abbreviated, impressionistic eyeballing of the texts — I am not feeling particularly sympathetic, since Crockett seems to have no reservations whatsoever about presenting himself (or authorizing Chilton to do so) as using stigmatized features — especially stigmatized grammatical features — when it suits his purposes, which is seems to do in the Narrative, despite the hurt feelings he claims over the way his speech is represented in Sketches and Eccentricities. In other words, his criticism of that volume rings somewhat disingenuous. Never mind that a lot of what is in Sketches and Eccentricities has nothing whatsoever to do with Crockett, which may be what really pissed him off about it. (Seriously, it meanders off on various tangents, mostly in the form of completely irrelevant, not at all funny, and entirely stereotypical sketches about Dutch settlers, a sub-sub-genre that apparently -- and inexplicably -- enjoyed some popularity in its time.)

Anyway, I've been puzzling on and off for quite a while over what I have taken to calling my "Davy Crockett problem," and part of what has been so difficult about trying to figure this guy out is dealing with the dizzying amount of material out there, including powerful and enduring myths and legends, and more recent attempts to revise or debunk or reconsider or rethink or reimagine or misappropriate the guy until you figure that he probably wouldn’t even recognize himself. When I first read the Narrative a couple of years ago, I wrote about it in a Facebook conversation with a good friend who tends to be generous about indulging me on these scholarly flights of fancy. I opened our discussion thusly:

Davy Crockett was such an unbelievable tool that he almost makes you feel sorry for Andrew Jackson.
I have since had time to take a more nuanced approach.

However, I stand by my initial claim that Rep. Crockett was in fact rather a tool, but I will now acknowledge that he was also more complicated than that, and that even a tool can have a soul. Crockett’s surfaces in the evolution of his position on the treatment of Native Americans. It is not going to be enough to get him off the hook for atrocities he almost certainly committed during the Creek War, but after spending more time than I've got trying to figure out what to do with this guy, I am going to leave him alone for a while, get back to the main threads of my project, and wish the myth of David “Davy” Crockett all the best.


1. Crockett's principled stand against the Indian Removal Act is admirable but also surprising in light of his earlier history and self-proclaimed beliefs about Native Americans, as articulated in the Narrative. Relevant passages at the links.

2. As Sheila Ruzycki O'Brien rightly observes: “Much Old Southwest humor isn't funny. Readers may occasionally chortle or chuckle, but the genre reflected and encouraged a racist social order in which the law of 'claw and fang' was sanctioned by a pre-Spencerian version of Social Darwinism.”    

3. Yes, this is a shameless plug for my previous book, Dialect and Dichotomy: Literary Representations of African American Speech, in which I argue that Faulkner's (rare) applications of eye dialect in The Sound and the Fury appear only in sections of the novel narrated by white characters whose attitudes about race and class are particularly problematic. In other words, I think these stereotypical representations of language index characteristics and attitudes of the narrator associated with them rather than characterizing the speaker whose language they purport to represent or reflecting the author's views (although Faulkner's racial attitudes were far from unproblematic). And I think I make a pretty good case, actually. For now, though, let's just say Benjy isn't the only unreliable narrator in The Sound and the Fury.  

4. In A History of the English Language (GoogleBooks preview at the link), Richard M. Hogg and David Denison (2006) note that many words with / before /r/ lowered to /a/ between the 13th and 16th centuries in England and that some of these pronunciations eventually became “stable in Germanic words like heart [and] dark.” However, they add that the lowering in most other cases was common “only until about 1800," when the feature started to be associated with "vulgar or rural stereotypes.” See also "Albion's Seed in Appalachia: The Use of Dialect as Evidence," in which Michael Ellis (1995) calls literary representations of [ɑr] pronunciations for [ər] as “stereotypical," although he does not rule out such pronunciations as being extant in the 19th century, including in Appalachia.

5. Boylston and Wiener (2009) argue that in fact Crockett made deliberate "use of the vernacular," as evidenced by an 1834 letter from Crockett to Carey and Hart, his Philadelphia publishers, in which he specified that the manuscript of his Narrative "needs no correction of spelling or grammar, as I make no literary pretensions."  

Originally posted to alevei on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 12:47 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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