Clay Reynolds on Stephen Harrigan

The Gates of the Alamo reviewed



Some years ago, when reviewing a pair of new novels on the mysterious story of Cynthia Ann Parker, one of the most enduring if not most endearing of Texas legends, I wrote, “I wish people would just leave Cynthia Ann alone.” So little is known about the hapless child who was kidnapped by the Comanches and became the mother of the celebrated leader, Quanah Parker, that further literary speculation seems somehow annoying.

I feel the same way about the Alamo. Possibly no other event in Texas history has so often captured the imagination of writers — both Texan and non-Texan — as has this quixotic act of blatant insubordination and centerpiece of Texas history. Although his account was by no means the first or the most fanciful, Lon Tinkle’s Thirteen Days to Glory set in adobe a pattern of deified heroism that has fixed itself in the minds and hearts of an entire generation of Texans. With reinforcement provided by everyone from Walt Disney and Fess Parker to John Wayne and Laurence Harvey, largely incorrect details of the story have become so ingrained in the grand mythos of Texas that I sometimes wonder that the Alamo itself hasn’t been moved to Brackettville and Frankie Avalon hasn’t been given an honorary degree from U.T.

But this literary assault on the walls of the Alamo continues to attract writers such as Jeff Long, Stephen Hardin, Walter Lord, and even the publicly funded James Michener. All have spilled gallons of ink in attempts to bring the Alamo story down from celestial heights and reduce the pantheon of “Texas gods” to human scale. Some have been more successful than others, obviously, with Michener’s account being the most ridiculous of the lot in prose. (Michael Lind holds the honors for the most erroneous treatment in verse.) One might think that these writers would by now have provided sufficient qualified versions for all readers — for in the end, as with the story of Cynthia Ann, what is known about what happened in March of 1836 is at best sketchy and incomplete, at worst, totally fabricated.

The newest soldier on this field of literary endeavor is Stephen Harrigan, who emerges fully armed with The Gates of the Alamo, a new, epic-length account of the Texas Revolution and its most celebrated episode. Wisely, Harrigan does not place any celebrated historical figure at the center of his story of the Republic’s separation from Mexico. Instead, fictitious characters bear the burden of advancing the central plot, while Harrigan uses the preamble and aftermath of the famous battle as the backdrop to a realistic tale of unrequited love, maternal instinct, and filial devotion. His central character is Mary Mott, a frontier innkeeper and widow of a wandering fool who brought her to Texas, then had the bad luck to die. Alone in the world, Mary retains her spunk and comeliness, while her son Terrell is obedient, sullen, but imbued with a moral purpose that will ultimately lead him into the ill-fated mission.

A second major character is Edmond McGowan, an itinerant botanist commissioned by the Mexican government to catalogue la flora de Tejas, and who, as a lifetime bachelor, has become a self-reliant denizen of the lonely frontier. Added to these three principals is a pair of soldiers in Santa Anna’s army, Telesforo Villase-or and Blas Angel Montoya, who provide the Mexican perspective. Caricatured is Joe, Travis’ hapless slave and the only documented adult male survivor of Battle of the Alamo.

The basic story of the Texas Revolution is far too familiar to rehearse here. It is no exaggeration to say (thanks to primary school education and cultural obsession) almost every Texan knows it better than the story of American colonial revolt against Britain. But Harrigan so skillfully folds it into the stories of his fictional characters, even the uninitiated can follow the story, as veteran pioneers of Stephen Austin’s colony are joined by land pirates and freebooters in an attempt to secure their freedom from what they perceive to be the tyranny of Santa Anna’s centralist government.

Along the way, the novel develops the love story between Mary and Edmond, and the growing estrangement between Terrell and his mother. Harrigan provides counterpoint, with an account (following Santa Anna’s massacre of the rebels at Zacatecas) of the Mexican soldiers healing their wounds and making preparations to march north to put down the upstart Texians. While these stories move toward the inevitable collision at San Antonio de Bexar, Harrigan outlines the geopolitical background, presenting the arguments of various factions and illustrating the oft-ignored plight of many settlers — both Tejano and Anglo — who wish to be left out of the conflict altogether.

The most formidable task facing Harrigan in his novelistic attempt to retell the familiar story is reconciling the two most bellicose factions to do battle over the Alamo since Santa Anna packed up and left San Antonio for good. The “traditionalists” insist that the Tinkle/Disney, et al. version is, if not accurate, at least faithful to some grandiose notion of Americanism. To one degree or another, they insist that Davy Crockett, wearing buckskins and a coonskin cap, died swinging Ol’ Betsy on the parapets of the besieged mission; that Travis, sword in hand, collapsed gently, smiling at the courage of his comrades; and that Bowie stabbed a few hundred Mexicans with his famous knife before succumbing to overwhelming odds.

The “revisionists,” on the other hand, claim that’s all a lot of Hollywood hokum. Crockett, they maintain, meekly surrendered and was summarily executed, and his frontier garb and famous rifle never made it from Tennessee to Texas. Travis was an insubordinate glory-seeker, very likely given to maniacal delusions of grandeur that were caused by imbibing mercury to cure venereal disease. Bowie probably was dead before the final assault began.

These particulars (along with several hundred other details) are hotly debated among amateur and professional historians. Diaries and journals, letters, and long-lost “eyewitness accounts” are constantly trotted out as “evidence” of the absolute veracity of each faction’s rhetorical position. The traditionalists are more tenacious in their defiance of the revisionists — and far more numerous. “If the Alamo had had that many defenders in the spring of 1836,” the late historian and Texas writer Eddie Weems once said to me, “Santa Anna would have turned tail and run.”

How seriously Harrigan took this dispute into account is anyone’s guess, but plainly, in The Gates of the Alamo, he carefully stakes out a middle ground. By doing so, he brings a credible depth of humanity and characterization to the stony images of Texas’ most celebrated heroes.

Following the pattern set by Ramsey Yelvington in A Cloud of Witnesses, Harrigan’s Bowie is a morose drunkard, tortured by the loss to cholera of his wife and family. Seeing that his fate is linked with the unfolding events, this Bowie is prepared to deal with the approaching Mexican army in a forthright manner — that is, to run — until he is struck down by fever. By the time of the final, fatal assault, he is too ill to be completely aware of what’s happening around him.

Harrigan’s Travis is an impetuous youth, undeterred by niggling details — such as orders from Sam Houston or commonsensical suggestions from anyone else — which might get between him and what he considers his destiny. Characterized as an egocentric womanizer, Travis comes off the page as a na?f, utterly committed to his stated purpose, even if the likely result is disaster. He is no visionary, but a misguided idealist, dedicated to propriety and the romantic myth of the “gentleman warrior.”

Crockett emerges as something of a bumbling has-been, hardly the frontier legend he had already become. Wearing a remarkable greatcoat and playing the glad-handing politician, he eventually seems something of an avuncular schoolmaster who has somehow led his class into a tragic lesson. In the end, Harrigan provides Crockett with the opportunity to escape, but he brings the heroic figure back to die — not as a cowering supplicant for mercy, but as the bewildered victim of ironic circumstance.

With other historical characters, Harrigan is consistently circumspect. His portrait of the famed Mexican dictator Santa Anna is perhaps the most sympathetic ever drawn by an American writer. For Sam Houston, Harrigan is careful not to step too far outside the lines of conventional historical character, although his antipathy toward Houston will remind the reader of Jeff Long and others, who sometimes draw Houston as a vulgar backwoodsman and inept drunkard, rather than a genteel military or political genius. Yet Houston’s folksy bromides and cornpone similes seem more authentic than Crockett’s, which are often strained.

As the plot moves toward the climactic battle, Harrigan’s fiction becomes more tightly interwoven with the few known historical facts. Details of the Mexican army’s torturous northward trek are graphic and wrenching. Harrigan takes acceptable license with conversations and details. But he is faithful to the historical account, and fond of showing off his research, particularly regarding firearms, medicine, clothing, and food. His descriptions of battle wounds are precise, and his accounts of physical hardship vivid. Such detail adds so much to the writer’s credibility that on those few occasions when he errs it is glaring.

Perhaps Harrington’s most significant breach of tradition, though, lies in some indulgences that blatantly challenge the canonical version of the siege and final assault at the Alamo. Among these would be his notion that Travis, in despair, momentarily offers to surrender the garrison in exchange for mercy. But the most critical indulgence has certain fictional characters surviving the massacre.

Finding defects in a novel of this size is an easy but not a gratifying chore. For in the final analysis, The Gates of the Alamo is as good a novel about the Texas Revolution and its most famous incident as has ever been published by anyone. Period. While traditionalists and revisionists will find cause to complain about Harrigan’s handling of some details, and military historians will quibble over his occasionally careless glossing of the final grand assault, Harrigan’s assembling of the events — both known and purely speculative — are cogent and credible, and make for a plausible story that includes more than it omits and satisfies far more than it disappoints. And no reader will be able to complain for want of realistic gore: guts and glory are mixed in the bloody final battle for the crumbling old mission.

Inevitably, the Alamo will capture the imagination of more writers, and no author will ever put paid to “the true story.” What is more important is that The Gates of the Alamo is a crackerjack good read. As large and well-researched historical romances go, Harrigan has expertly rendered the best elements of the genre, and he has done so with a literary aplomb and stylistic command that slips only occasionally, but quickly covers its errors with the fabric of a moving story of ordinary human beings caught up in extraordinary events.

Novelist and critic Clay Reynolds is an associate professor at the U.T.-Dallas. His novel, Monuments, is scheduled for publication in May.