Wanted: Fresh Biographies of Early Republic Tennesseans

Originally posted on March 16, 2011

Bloggers Mark Cheatham and Michael Lynch (whose history blogs I would definitely recommend) point out the lack of scholarly biographies for several essential figures of the Early Republic, many of whom happen to be Tennesseans. While men such as John Sevier, William Blount, and John Bell have had biographies written about them, none has recent a modern treatment in almost sixty years. Others such as Hugh Lawson White and William Carroll–both significant figures in Tennessee political history–have been neglected altogether. (The lack of a biography for Carroll, the state’s longest serving governor, really surprises me. Aside from Andrew Jackson, he was Tennessee’s most influential politician of the 1820s and 1830s. ) Hopefully these men’s lives will interest historians in the near future and help fill the biographical void.

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Stand Up for the Archives!

Originally posted on March 29, 2011

One of Tennessee’s underappreciated treasures is the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville. I’ve enjoyed spending many Saturdays looking at microfilm or pouring through books for various projects over the years. When I was a college student living in Jackson, it was a big deal for me to make a trip to the Archives. One of the reasons I love living in Middle Tennessee is being only an hour’s drive from it. (My wife kids me about spending so much time there on Saturdays!) Over the past 20 years, this repository has held the secrets of my family history and subjects of books I’ve written. I couldn’t have written them without it.

I love having access to so much of our state’s history, but if proposed 2011-2012 state budget cuts are as deep as they appear to be, public access would be greatly limited. This past weekend, Mark Cheatham raised the alarm that TSLA’s public access could be reduced from 60 hours to 37.5, eliminating seven full-time positions. Gordon Belt at The Posterity Project confirmed the building would be closed on Mondays and hours would be reduced Tuesday-Saturday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. effective July 1, 2011. (The Archives is normally open until 6 p.m.)

Times are tough and money is short in state government, and I applaud Gov. Haslam’s efforts to trim excess from the budget. But as a longtime patron of TSLA, I cannot condone limiting public access to state records in order to save money. I would argue that more would be lost if historians, genealogical researchers, and graduate students were denied the time needed to investigate their particular areas of historical research.

I would urge everyone impacted by this measure to contact their legislators, Gov. Haslam, and Secretary of State Tre Hargett, and politely express your disapproval. Mark Cheatham has provided ways to make contact and make your voices heard.

New Crockett Letter Discovered

Originally posted on April 7, 2011

Yesterday Jim Boylston and Allen J. Wiener, authors of David Crockett in Congress: The Rise and Fall of the Poor Man’s Friend (Bright Sky Press, 2009) announced that they had uncovered a letter written by Crockett to the publishers of his best-selling autobiography. (By the way, I highly recommend their book for anyone interested in Crockett and/or Tennessee history.)

The letter was written a year before his reelection campaign against the subject of my own book Adam Huntsman: The Peg Leg Politician. As he concludes, Crockett is looking ahead to the campaign and asks his publishers for an advance of $150-$200 to help finance it. He writes:

I was beaten the election before the last and it give me a back set in money matters    An election costs a man a great deal in my country and I had strength and power to contend against

The “strength and power” he has “to contend against” turns out to be Huntsman, a formidable opponent who narrowly beats him for reelection. Of course this defeat led him to go to Texas, and the rest is history.

Recent Acquisitions

Originally posted on April 25, 2011

From time to time, I’ll post about books I’ve added to my personal library. Recent acquisitions have been limited by the household budget, but I did manage to shelve a few more lately.

This weekend, I went to a presentation and book signing by Ross Hudgins, author of Maggie: The Civil War Journal of Margaret Nichol Vaulx (Published by Westview, 2011). It’s the journal of a 17-year-old Nashville girl as she and her family endure the “Great Panic” in Tennessee’s capital city after the fall of Fort Donelson and Federal occupation. I had heard about this book recently and look forward to reading it.

The second book is recommended by Mark Cheatham of the Jacksonian America blog entitled The Craft of Research (Third Edition) (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Described as a “practical guide to mastering the art of research,” I hope it hones my own research techniques and teaches me a few new things, too

Is This Book Really Necessary?

Originally posted on May 27, 2011

Whenever I choose the subject of a book project, I always ask myself: Is this book really necessary? Does it share new information, present corrections to works already published, or give a different opinion of the subject?

If the answer is no, I believe the project is not worth pursing.

Case in point: A new biography of David Crockett (political opponent of Adam Huntsman, whom I’ve written about) written by Michael Wallis entitled David Crockett: The Lion of the West is now available. I’ve not read it, so this isn’t a critique of the book itself. But I wonder if this one is really necessary? Will it add to our knowledge of the fabled frontiersman based on groundbreaking research or the discovery of new letters written by him? Or is it simply a retelling of what serious Crockett readers already know without adding anything new, because the author simply wanted to write a book about him?

I’m afraid the latter point will be the case with Lion of the West.

For me, the three best Crockett biographies in terms of historic value are: William C. Davis’s Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis; David Crockett in Congress: The Rise and Fall of the Poor Man’s Friend by James R. Boylston and Allen J. Wiener; and James Atkins Shackford’s groundbreaking David Crockett: The Man and the Legend.

Truth be told, unless there’s a cache of heretofore unknown Crockett letters out there or a family diary that tells us more about his personal life, I don’t see the need for yet another Crockett biography that supposedly “uncovers” the “real” man underneath the Disney legend. This “uncovering” has already been done by Davis, Boylston, Wiener, and Shackford. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but when I buy a book, I expect to learn something that I never knew before. I expect diligent research that presents new information about the subject of that particular book. Perhaps it’s too much to ask.

I’d like to hear from anyone who has read Lion of the West to share their take on Wallis’s interpretation of David Crockett. Is it worth reading? I’m sure I’ll give it a chance and add it to my Crockett bookshelf eventually.