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forget the alamo

25 july 2021

Forget the Alamo caused such a ruckus at the Bullock Texas State History Museum earlier this month that I wondered if it would scandalize even me. Come to find that Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford have written a book that, while puckish in tone, is hardly irreverent. Much of Forget the Alamo consists of a fairly standard "historiography" (341) of the public memory and rhetoric surrounding the unforgettable mission in San Antonio. Nothing in the book will shock anyone acquainted with academic histories of Texas. The most outrageous aspect is that dispassionate scholarly treatment of the Alamo arguably began as recently as the 1990s. When the legend became fact, true believers, even in Texas universities, printed the legend – and meanwhile the legend stubbornly refused to become fact.

After setting the context, Burrough, Tomlinson, & Stanford finish the Alamo story itself less than halfway through their book. Theirs is not a debunking narrative – plenty of precursors, as they demonstrate, have pre-debunked the heroic version. The Texas Revolution really was in large part about defending slavery (which is vehemently championed in the 1836 Texas Constitution). William Travis and Jim Bowie did have issues with anger management; and Davy Crockett just sort of wandered onto the scene. One can't really argue anymore that they fought in a very admirable cause, but their fate remains mixed with pathos and their personal bravery is obvious.

The remainder of Forget the Alamo is about Alamo memory as a contested site. Literally: the mission church and its precincts have been the focus of a tussle for control of Alamo memory, and remain so today. Most people think of the Alamo as just the church with the famous façade, but that was a small part of the compound that William Travis and his men defended in 1836. The walls of the outer perimeter of the Alamo mostly crumbled and were carted away in the decades after the battle; the Long Barrack where much of the fighting took place became the foundation of a general store. Alamo preservationist Adina de Zavala wanted to restore the Long Barrack so it could figure in the physical story of the place. Inexplicably, her sometime colleague and more often archrival Clara Driscoll wanted to tear down the Long Barrack altogether as a step toward beautifying the Alamo environs. In a bad compromise, the store was dismantled in the early 1910s and the Long Barrack half torn down. Such pointless controversies with haphazard results characterize the whole material history of the place.

But a contested site figuratively, too. Burrough, Tomlinson, & Stanford offer a keen description of how Alamo remembrance stigmatized generations of Tejano kids. If the Alamo was Texas' Calvary and Crockett its Savior, the Mexicans were cast as Christ-killers in the story. The height of such heroic racism came when Walt Disney and John Wayne reinvented Davy Crockett as a homespun proto-Cold-Warrior – in that rendition, Mexicans got to play Communists. The Alamo came to mean everything that Anglo-Americans wanted to portray as good against any enemy they wanted to demonize. Any deviation from the received version constitutes apostasy; if it goes into a second edition, Forget the Alamo could add itself to its own list of controversial naysayers.

And the lines in the sand have been drawn more starkly in the 21st century. Burrough, Tomlinson, & Stanford present the governorship of George W. Bush as the zenith of sanctioned revisionism, with a new diversity-oriented, historically critical approach replacing white supremacy in Texas rhetoric and Texas public schools. The leaders who have followed Bush, especially the current duo of Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, have played much more on Anglo-Texan anxieties about losing control of the narrative. The authors of Forget the Alamo don't have much to say about the current generation of Texas leaders, and one guesses that the disdain they show for Abbott and Patrick led to their being cancelled at the Bullock Museum. But that would imply that Abbott and Patrick pay attention to the content of books.

Forget the Alamo is flawed at times. Its flippancy can get overplayed. The long narrative of the battle over the Alamo in the curriculum is told in a manner unaccountably breathless, with each minor twist in the story presented as a bombshell of controversy. At several points early on, the authors refer to the "entire population of Texas" (7) as if it were made up solely of Europeans, and Texas after 1813 as "practically empty," which unfortunately elides Native Americans. (Later on, though the authors prominently acknowledge Native activists working to preserve traces of their ancestors in the burial grounds that comprise much of the Alamo site – 252, 294.) And there can be inconsistencies here and there. "The Alamo's trapped defenders died for pretty much nothing," the authors say (135), but a few pages earlier they'd stressed the strategic importance of San Antonio and the considerable blow dealt Santa Anna's army by the many casualties that the Alamo defenders inflicted (127).

The weirdest bit of Forget the Alamo makes for a tightly-constructed story, though: the curious episode of Phil Collins. Apparently, some English rockers have a thing for the Alamo. David Bowie was simple David Jones till, pre-empted by the Monkee of similar name, he turned to one of his favorite childhood TV shows and renamed himself after the Alamo knifeman. Collins didn't go so far as to rename himself Travis, but, growing more and more fascinated with the Alamo over the years, he began to collect anything Alamo-related that went on the market.

As Burrough, Tomlinson, & Stanford tell the story (Collins declined interviews), the musician did OK for a while, buying genuine documents and funding primary archeological work of sorts. Then he fell in with dealers who developed the habit of applying a little "solvent" to an old or not-even-that-old artifact and suddenly making out the initials of an Alamo hero. These guys must have taken a lot of time out from their adventures to label their equipment, because soon Collins possessed quite a few personalized knives, guns, and other bric-a-brac from Alamo heroes. If the True Cross or the Crown of Thorns can beget numerous multiples of themselves, so, it appears, can the Precious Shot Pouch and the Veritable Coonskin Cap.

Collins at one point had a deal with the State of Texas to fund a major museum in San Antonio and stock it with his collection, but the negotiations seem to have broken down as Collins' provenances have become too inexact even for the hero-hungry Texan powers that be to sign on to his vision. All we can say at this point is that the Phil Collins Experience won't be the last bizarre twist in this unlikeliest of American sagas.

Burrough, Bryan, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford. Forget the Alamo: The rise and fall of an American myth. New York: Penguin [Penguin Random House], 2021. F 390 .B925