Col. Crockett

Portrait of an heroic Davy Crockett by John Gadsby Chapman — Art Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin. wikimedia.

I suspect but cannot prove that Col. Crockett and his showmanship form at least a partial prototype for Brevet Brigadier General John A. B. C. Smith, with his manifest “prodigies of valor” and “blood and thunder, and all that!” The “perfect desperado” is as always a smirking Poe only slightly offstage.

Why Crockett?

I base my entry in the name-that-General sweepstakes not on historical but textual grounds. Poe had reviewed “Crockett’s” An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East [etc.] (1835) in the April, 1835 Messenger ., and the distinctive shiplike shape of the title would assuredly have caught his eye then. He would remember and reuse that device in Pym. No doubt he would have snorted in derision at the “WRITTEN BY HIMSELF” on the title page. Perhaps this too may have inspired a twist in Pym’s title.

Plainly, “the General” can exist only within the world of fiction; he is by definition a purely fictive assemblage, just as Hans Phaall’s letter, chockablock with pseudo-scientific detail but dropped by a moon-man, simply must be. Attempting to link this creature to Reality (history as we know it) can only be a parlor game in which the greater wit and the closer semblance to logical deduction win out. To what end?

Crockett’s Words

As Poe would have seen Crockett’s effusions.

“Let him write it plain — none of your hiryglifficks — or I won’t put him in.” From An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East [etc.] 1835 (p. 82). 

Note that Crockett’s title page clearly implicates the outline of a ship, just as Pym’s does. In fact, it becomes difficult not to see another ship in Crockett’s earlier Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett, of West Tennessee [etc.] 1833 .

In his review of Elkswatawa; or the Prophet of the West. A tale of the Frontier   [SLM, August, August, 1836, p. 116], Poe states that:

“This novel is written by Mr. James S. French, of Jerusalem, Virginia — the author, we believe, of ‘Eccentricities of David Crockett,’ a book of which we know nothing beyond the fact of its publication.” It is difficult to believe that Poe would not have picked up the book, if only to evaluate the source of its clumsiness. Note that Poe later inserts a curiously laudatory “review” of French in “Autography” 1836.

Poe slaps Crockett’s Tour aside with a two-sentence review:

in the April, 1835 SLM (see p. 459). 

By “vulgarity of his language,” Poe may refer not to impropriety but to comedic failure — Seba Smith’s accenting of “Crockett” is profoundly, transparently unfunny today and likely just as strained to Poe’s ear then, hence the “censure.” Smith has not offended but merely lost points on the comic scale. Many points.

Frontier Racism

What shocks us today, of course, is the casualness of Crockett’s racism. He witnesses a performance by one Jim Crow:

“… After this I returned to the hotel, and remained until night, when I was asked to visit the theatre in Walnut street. The landlord, Dorrance, and others were to go with me, to see Jim Crow. While we were talking about it, one of them said he could go all over the world ‘Tu crow juicy.’ Some laughed very hearty, and others did not. I was among the latter, for I considered it a dry joke, although there was something juicy in it. Some of them said it was Latin; and that proved to me the reason why I did not laugh — I was tired of the ‘old Roman.’ But these Philadelphians are eternally cutting up jokes on words j so I puts a conundrum to them; and says I, ‘Can you tell me why the sacking of Jerusalem was like a cider mill?’ Well, they all were stumpt, and gave it up. ‘Because it made the Jews fly.’ Seeing them so much pleased with this, says I, ‘Why is a cow like a razor-grinder?’ No one could answer. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘I thought you could find that out, for I don’t know myself.’

We started for the theatre, and found a very full house, and Jim a playing for the dear life. Jim makes as good a nigger as if he was clean black, except the bandy-legs.

Everybody seemed pleased, particularly when I laughed; they appeared to act as if I knew exactly when to laugh, and then they all followed. (pp. 32-33)”

“…I found I was wrong, and I faced right about: and when they told me I should be politically buried if I left Jackson, I told them I had rather be politically buried than hypocritically immortalized — and so we parted. [“]

“But, gentlemen, I am no man’s partizan; I don’t mean to wear no man’s collar; for I would as lief belong to a nigger, and be a raccoon dog, as the partizan of any man.[“] (pp. 80-81)

Actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice as “Jim Crow,” 1836. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. “Jim Crow” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1836. Crockett writes that “Jim makes as good a nigger as if he was clean black, except the bandy-legs.”

Rice played at the Park Theatre, 23 Park Row, New York, NY in the later 1830’s:

Charles W. Burton, artist; William D. Smith, engraver. Originally published in: (August 7, 1830). “Views in the City of New-York: Park Row.” New-York Mirror VIII (5): 33–34.

Wikipedia [citing Broadbent, Annals of the Liverpool Stage, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (New York), 1969] states that “T. D. Rice, the celebrated negro comedian, performed ‘Jump Jim Crow’ with witty local allusions at Ducrow’s Royal Amphitheatre (now The Royal Court Theatre), Liverpool, England.” Perhaps the colonel pretends to mishear it as “Tu crows.”