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 01′ 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 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 nalf, 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 re search, 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. DECEMBER 24, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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