DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. When I was a kid growing up in Texas, I was fascinated by the story of the Alamo, the old Spanish mission and fort in San Antonio which was the site of the most famous battle of the war in which Texas won its independence from Mexico back in 1836. About 180 rebels in the Alamo were surrounded by a Mexican army, which stormed the fort and killed its defenders.
My guest today, Bryan Burrough, is one of three writers who have a new book about the Alamo and the revolt that separated Texas from Mexico. The authors say they're all proud Texans, but as writers, they also love facts. And a hard look at the historical record shows that the accounts commonly told of the Texas origin story don't hold up to scrutiny. Little was said, for example, about the Texas rebels' insistence on keeping slavery as a cause of their conflict with Mexico. And some of the cherished heroes of the Alamo, like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, weren't exactly the selfless martyrs for freedom we thought. The book also looks at modern battles over how to treat the Alamo, which still stands in downtown San Antonio. One of those stories involves Phil Collins - yes, the rock singer Phil Collins.
Bryan Burrough is the author of six previous books, including the bestseller "Barbarians At The Gate." His new book with Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford is called "Forget The Alamo: The Rise And Fall Of An American Myth." Well, Bryan Burrough, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BRYAN BURROUGH: Thanks for having me, Dave.
DAVIES: You and I both grew up in Texas. Were you fascinated by the story of the Alamo as a kid?
BURROUGH: No more than any other kid. I think what always struck me was just that I was growing up in a place that used to be a country. And while that's an interesting fact, what I think can be difficult for outlanders or non-Texans to understand is how much a part of one's identity that becomes growing up in Texas. I don't know that Iowa and South Dakota, as wonderful as they are, really have state identities that kids go around bragging about or feeling about. And it's - the Alamo story is really at the center of the whole Texas creation myth.
DAVIES: All right. So let's talk about how this fight began that led to the Battle of the Alamo. In the first decades of the 19th century, in the 1810s and '20s, Texas was essentially a province of Mexico, first Spain, and then as Mexico got its independence from Spain, it was a province of Mexico. How did white settlers come to establish a presence there?
BURROUGH: Right. Mexico as a young republic had a real tough time, as Spain had before it, populating Texas. They just couldn't get people to go up here. They didn't see any reason to go up here. And during the 1810s, the state was literally overrun by the Comanches and, to a lesser extent, the Apaches, stealing horses and mules. So that, you know, by 1820, there were maybe 4,000 people in the entire state. There are office buildings in Manhattan that had more people than that. And so the Mexican government was looking for some type of buffer that could be brought in as a break between the Comanches and Mexico proper. And in 1821, when a down-on-his-luck Missourian named Moses Austin rode in to San Antonio, proposing that he be allowed to settle some Americans in - on lands in Southeast Texas that were unoccupied, the Mexican government said that sounds like a great idea.
And so the first American colonies who call themselves Texans came in 1821. And over the next 15 years, they built a thriving colony built on cotton production, slave-based cotton production, which was from the beginning a point of real friction between the Americans and the Mexican government, which was stridently abolitionist. And so between 1821 and the Revolution, which began in 1835, you see not only the growth and the prosperity in Texas, but also the steady escalation of tensions between the American colonists, the Texians and the Mexican government.
DAVIES: All right. So the revolt in 1835 and 1836, which led to Texas independence from Mexico, what's the story that has traditionally been taught about why the white settlers rebelled against Mexico?
BURROUGH: The conventional Anglo-centric narrative, if you will, has always been that the Texans were fighting for their freedom against an oppressive Mexican government, which, if you take any type of look at the historical record, is unsupported by facts. The Texans had been appealing for special rights, including the right to bear slaves, to the central government for years. And the central government, lastly under Santa Anna, had given them pretty much everything they wanted. And the trigger for the revolt was when, after not enforcing taxes for some time as a bid to placate the American colonists, the Mexican government finally said, well, you know, we actually do want to collect those taxes, guys, at which point angry Texans raided Mexican tax offices and killed Mexican soldiers, which triggered - that was the trigger to the revolt.
DAVIES: It's, you know, this notion that slavery was a cause of the Texas revolt is something that I don't remember ever hearing when I took Texas history in the seventh grade. And the book gives a pretty clear historical record of Stephen F. Austin, kind of the leader of the early colonists there, repeatedly going to Mexico and negotiating, spending months - years, even - trying to argue the point that you have to accommodate this or it doesn't work.
BURROUGH: It is startling to someone who prizes history and who spends a living exploring history how the whole issue of slavery essentially was left unaddressed for 150 years. It really wasn't until the 1980s and 1990s that a new generation of historians, many of them weaned in the 1960s, began attempting to reassess all this. Our book, in fact, is a popular history that builds upon and stands on the shoulders of 30 or 40 years of academic work that has shown that slavery was the undeniable linchpin of all of this. It was the thing that the two sides had been arguing about and shooting about, you know, for going on 15 years.
And yet it still surprises me that slavery went unexamined for so long. But then you have to understand, the Texas revolt for 150 years was largely ignored by academics, in part because it was considered declasse, it was considered provincial, and because the state government of Texas, much as they're doing now, has for a hundred and 20 or 30 years, made very clear to the University of Texas faculty and to the faculty of other state-funded universities that it only wants one type of Texas history taught, one version of the heroic Anglo narrative taught, and that if you, you know, if you get outside those boundaries, you're going to hear about it from the legislature.
And, you know, the book charts the number of times that the legislature has gotten involved and said, we're not going to have that stuff taught. You're going to teach that the Alamo's defenders and the Texans and the Revolution were heroes. In fact, I believe it was in 2010, 2011, that that was actually put into State Department of Education guidelines, where Texas school teachers that teach Texas history to every seventh grader are essentially under standing orders to teach a heroic version of the Revolution and that all of the defenders of the Alamo were, in fact, heroic.
And when an advisory committee to the State Department of Education tried to say a few years back, you know, that's a little bit much, our existing governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, went online and kind of led a very public smackdown of that so that the heroic version of Texas history remains literally the law of the land.
DAVIES: All right. Let's go back to the 1820s and '30s, when this was all unfolding. When hostilities broke out in 1836, the army sent to quell the revolt in Texas from Mexico was led by Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, then the ruler of Mexico, known to Texans as Santa Anna. He is remembered in the kind of classic understanding of this as a ruthless tyrant who imposed these draconian rules on Anglo settlers. That's not really what the record shows, is it?
BURROUGH: It's really not. Look, we're not here to tell you Santa Anna is any type of saint. He did come to power as a strong, you know, centralist. The story of Mexican government during this period is of the struggle between those like Santa Anna that favored a strong central government and those who wanted a weak central government under the rubric of federalism, which is very much what those in Texas wanted because it allowed them more controls over their own laws. And in time, the term federalism became kind of a code word for pro-slavery. It meant that they could keep their slaves. And when Santa Anna came in, he was willing to allow them to do their thing - to have their slaves - as long as they were well-behaved and paid their taxes.
But when they revolted, there was a - an edge to Santa Anna's response. He made clear that under international law at the time, this was piracy. These people were subject to death, and, as we know, he killed most of those that he captured. And he made clear as he rode north with his army, towards San Antonio, that his first order of business upon defeating this revolution would be the outlawing, once and for all, of slavery, which, as you might expect, you know, provoked a widespread panic in Texas.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Bryan Burrough. His new book with Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford is "Forget The Alamo: The Rise And Fall Of An American Myth." He'll be back in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH'S "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Bryan Burrough. His new book with Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford reexamining the Alamo and the Texas war for independence is called "Forget The Alamo: The Rise And Fall Of An American Myth."
I want to talk a bit about the heroes of the Alamo. You know, no one survived the attack. Santa Anna's army stormed the walls and killed all those who were there. But let's talk about some of the heroes of it and how they're traditionally remembered and kind of what you find the historical record really shows. The most famous defender of the Alamo is Davy Crockett, kind of the great frontiersman who led some - a gang of volunteers to help defend the Alamo. And I thought I might reintroduce the typical way of him with a clip from the 1960 movie "The Alamo," in which John Wayne plays Davy Crockett. And this is a scene in which Crockett has just arrived at the Alamo with his group of 25 or so volunteers, and he is speaking with Colonel William Barret Travis, who is the commander of the Alamo. And he tells Travis that he's heard that they want to revolt and establish a republic in Texas.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ALAMO")
JOHN WAYNE: (As Davy Crockett) Republic. I like the sound of the word, means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. Some words can give you a feeling that make your heart warm. Republic is one of those words.
DAVIES: So that's the Davy Crockett I grew up with, a man drawn to the Alamo because he wanted to defend liberty wherever it was threatened. What's the real Davy Crockett like? (Laughter).
BURROUGH: Dave, this is such a face-palming moment. That movie - oy. That movie is such a fount of all the worst Alamo misinformation. You know, of the holy trinity of Alamo defenders - Jim Bowie, William Travis and Crockett - Crockett is the least objectionable in some ways. You know, he was an out-of-work one-time congressman from Tennessee. He was nationally known. He was famous in his day, as was Bowie. He didn't come to Texas with any type of philosophical ideas. He came because his career was at an end in Tennessee, in Washington. He had been kind of hooted out of Washington. And he came - much like his peer Sam Houston, he came in search of some type of new opportunity in the hopes that, yes, some type of American-led government would take over here of which he could become president.
DAVIES: And Crockett was given a land grant, I think, in return for enlisting in the Texas rebellion. But he - how did he get these 20-odd guys to follow him? (Laughter). Who were they?
BURROUGH: They were just a bunch of buddies. And at the time, a lot - an awful lot of people in the western edges of the U.S. - so Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas - all thought this was - you know, the best cotton lands were - had all been sold. And everybody realized - I mean, God, all you had to do was go to Texas, sign up in the Army, and you got free land. You got a new start. And so Crockett didn't come to fight. It was the cost of getting the land. At the time, the Mexicans weren't even in Texas. It seemed like a bit of a lark. Let's - you know, let's get a couple of six packs and, you know, go have an adventure in Texas. That was the spirit in which Crockett came to the Alamo.
DAVIES: Right. And he was 49, kind of (laughter) looking for a final act in his political career. He'd been a congressman in Tennessee, right?
BURROUGH: Yes. He was not looking to be a soldier. He was a paunchy, older 49. But if he had to garrison the Alamo for three or four months before he could go start his political career, well, it seemed like a small price to pay for a fresh start.
DAVIES: All right. Maybe the next most famous is Jim Bowie, famous for his Bowie knife, the big knife. What do we know about him?
BURROUGH: Well, Bowie was also famous in his day, in large part because of a duel that he had fought - I believe this was 1827 - in which he managed to kill a couple of fellows with his Bowie knife, thus making him a national figure, his knife a national figure, and him - you know, he was a minor-grade hero out on the Western frontier. And yet, as academic histories have shown over the last 34 years, Bowie came to Texas basically being hounded by grand juries back in Louisiana and Arkansas because in his career, which began as a trader in illegal slaves, his, you know, major achievement was a massive land fraud in which he purloined, you know, thousands of acres of land in northern Louisiana and attempted to do so in Arkansas before the whole scheme was kind of stopped by federal grand juries and federal investigators, at which point Mr. Bowie thought, you know, good time to head to Texas.
And so he came to Texas pretty much penniless, married a very wealthy young woman in San Antonio whose father bankrolled him in a number of business ventures, none of which did very well. And by the time the Texas revolt rolls around in 1835, 1836, he's not - it's probably an overstatement to say that he's a drunk on the street of San Antonio, but he's pretty close to that. He is a figure of ridicule among the Tejanos in San Antonio, who referred to him as James Bowie the braggart. But the moment the fighting breaks out, he is resuscitated because everybody knows, whatever you may think of him as a possible swindler, as a bad businessman, he is a heck of a fighting man, and that's what they needed.
DAVIES: OK, the commander of the garrison at the Alamo was William Barret Travis, I mean, nobly portrayed in the film. Tell us about him.
BURROUGH: Oh, Travis. Oh, he's a hard man to like. Travis is the walking embodiment of the haughty, you know, frontier Southerner who, if you look at him crossways, would challenge you to a duel, as he did a time or two. He'd left Alabama, leaving his wife and children, because of bad debts and came over to Texas and swiftly, within months, opens - you know, becomes a lawyer and begins hanging out with a number of kind of malcontent Southerners who just don't think very much of the Mexican governors and - the Mexican governor. And they are called the war dogs, and he becomes, almost overnight, the loudest of the war dogs, trying to get somebody to understand that we can't be part of Mexico. And in fact, it was Travis' raid on a Mexican garrison in Anahuac in 1835 that really triggered the whole thing, that brought the first Mexican troops in to arrest him.
As a person, I think the most salacious thing that constantly gets brought up about Travis is the fact that in his diary, he kept a detailed account of all the women he'd slept with. And it appears that he had some type of venereal disease, most likely syphilis, for which he was taking some medicine that tended to make one a little crazy, a little edgy, very much the type of person who would challenge you to a duel. He was - Travis is a heavy load.
DAVIES: That's funny. I never saw any of that in the movie (laughter).
BURROUGH: No, because you have to understand - you have to think of Travis as almost like a public relations man. When he kind of lucked into being the senior man at the Alamo, what changed his career, what put him down in history and really, to some extent, what put the Alamo down in history are these incredibly eloquent letters that he wrote to the American government of Texas, the de facto government, asking for reinforcements and swearing that he would fight to the death, you know, against these mongrel hordes, in pursuit of liberty against Mexican oppression, all of which were just masterpieces of spin and unfortunately, little of which stands up to, you know, examination of the historical record.
DAVIES: We should probably take a moment to talk about Sam Houston. He was not at the Alamo, but was the overall commander of the Texas rebel force and eventually became the first president of the Texas Republic, right? Tell us about Sam Houston.
BURROUGH: Sam Houston, somewhat like Davy Crockett, had come to Texas, although several years earlier, at the end of his political career in the U.S. and was looking for opportunity. There have always been conspiracy theories that Houston's mentor - and keep in mind, Houston was a one-time governor of Tennessee, so he was very close with Jackson. And there was always speculation that, in fact, Houston might have his eye on the White House.
DAVIES: That's President Andrew Jackson you're referring to.
BURROUGH: Yes. Houston came in. He was not at the Alamo in large part because he got into a spat with the American government and just basically sent Jim Bowie over there and said, look, I don't think we can defend this place. Go over there and check it, and if it's not defensible, would you just blow it up and surrender east? And if these guys come in, we'll fight them in East Texas. And Houston, during the entire battle and siege, was off in East Texas, negotiating some type of treaty with the Cherokee. So he was entirely out to lunch throughout all this.
DAVIES: All right. We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Bryan Burrough. His new book with Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford is "Forget The Alamo: The Rise And Fall Of An American Myth." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Bryan Burrough, author of six books, including the bestseller "Barbarians At The Gate." His new book with Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford looks at the Battle of the Alamo and the Texas war for independence from Mexico in 1836, challenging some commonly-held beliefs about the causes of the rebellion and taking a closer look at some of those regarded as heroes of the Alamo, including Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. The book is "Forget The Alamo: The Rise And Fall Of An American Myth."
So in 1836, Santa Ana moves north from Mexico with a very large army. You know, there's a question of whether or not the troops at the Alamo had to stand and defend it. I mean, the lore is that by holding off the Mexican army for a 13-day siege, they gave time for Sam Houston, who's in East Texas, to build a fighting force. Did they have to defend the Alamo? Did Houston want them to?
BURROUGH: They didn't, and they shouldn't have. Houston didn't want it defended. You have to keep in mind just the numbers here. Santa Ana is coming north with 6,000 troops. They've got maybe 200 guys at essentially an indefensible open-air Spanish mission. You know, there has always been this great mystery of why on earth Travis and Bowie stayed. And the best argument there is probably because they believed reinforcements would be forthcoming. You know, every other day, they send off these plaintive, dramatic letters, you know, asking for reinforcement that, by and large, never came.
But the truly perplexing thing is that in the two weeks leading up to the arrival of Santa Anna's forces in San Antonio, you know, Travis and Bowie are getting almost daily warnings of the progress. They know they're coming, and yet still, they stay there. It makes absolutely no sense of why they stayed there, except for the fact that these are men who, by and large, had never been in war. You get a sense that Travis never really believes something bad can happen to him. I mean, the idea that Mexican soldiers would show up and kill them all just seems like a notion that he never really accepted, that somehow something would happen to spirit them all the way to safety. And of course, it doesn't happen.
And, of course, this leads to one of the great myths, which is the bravery of the Alamo defenders, how they fought to their death and everything. And, you know, when you look at the facts, you know, they never made a conscious decision to fight to the death. There was no line in the sand drawn. That's one of the great Alamo myths. And I have to say, what we now know is because Mexican accounts - accounts for Mexican officers and soldiers - have, you know, a number of them, a dozen of them have come to light over the last 50 years that show that between a third and a half the Texas defenders actually broke and ran. They ran out into the open, where they were unceremoniously run down and killed by Mexican cavalry.
Now, we - neither we nor the academic authors who first found this say that this means anybody was a coward. It was just that the place was overrun. It wasn't like every man fought to his death in place, as, you know, generations of historians have taught us. The fact is they realized they were being run, and a lot of them just felt like the only chance they have was to run out to the open. Maybe they could get away - and none did.
DAVIES: The movie made in 1960, "The Alamo," which I will confess, I was 7 when I first saw it and went back and saw it a week later. I was so amazed by this film. Tell us about where that movie came from and its role in perpetuating the legend of the Alamo.
BURROUGH: Through about World War II, Dave, the Alamo remained kind of a regional phenomenon. There was no national, international following. There were no what we call today Alamo heads out there. But it was really two things in the late 1950s and early 1960s that made it into a national and then an international phenomenon. The first was the huge success of Disney's Davy Crockett TV movies and then, like, you know, just an explosion into popular culture was the John Wayne movie in 1960 called "The Alamo."
And Wayne made the movie - which was a colossal but not a cultural flop, I would say - made the movie basically because he wholeheartedly believed that America was falling apart, you know, that it was going to the dogs and that somebody need to stand up for what are today called patriotic values, family values, American values. And it's also pretty clear, as we say in the book, that he believes - as crazy as this sounds - he was, you know, ardently pro-Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign and ardently anti-Kennedy, and in his mind, believed that this type of huge shoutout of American patriot values, could somehow defeat John F. Kennedy.
The movie, most reviewers would tell you, is a mess. It perpetuates every hoary Alamo myth. And yet it spoke to a certain cross-section of America and international viewers. It was really the thing that, more than anything, caused the Alamo to become the international icon that it's become, that and also, following in its wake, we had the presidency of the first Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was a massive Alamo fan, would recite poems about the Alamo at White House dinners, actually went to the point where he made up an ancestor that he said fought and died at the Alamo, which unfortunately turned out not to be true. But Johnson was the embodiment of the Texan who just adores this legend so much he can't stop talking about it.
DAVIES: You know, I remember that movie. And I remember John Wayne playing Davy Crockett. I had no idea until I read your book that he was actually the driving force behind getting it made. You know, one of the other scenes in the film is that Davy Crockett fights to the end. You know, when he runs out of bullet, he's swinging his rifle that he'd named Betsy. As you say, I mean, there's no cowardice in being - fleeing if your position is overrun, but the historical record actually shows that it seems likely Davy Crockett himself surrendered. Is that true?
BURROUGH: I think that most academics now believe, based on Mexican accounts and contemporary accounts, that, in fact, he did surrender and was executed. And it's funny because so many of the myths of the Alamo we can trace to the very beginning to the 1800s. This, however, was actually a fairly modern myth. If you go back to the first accounts, there are any number of newspaper accounts that say that Crockett was captured and executed. As late as the '20s, '30s and into the '40s, you can see that.
But in the 1950s, a funny thing happened where the Fess Parker Davy Crockett, that Disney Davy Crockett, was really adopted by a lot of Americans as kind of this symbol of anti-communism, this symbol of true American values that is standing against left-wing, commie values, if you will. And you see a new generation of historians becoming a little wary of saying that he would surrender. And you suddenly get this spate of accounts - by far the most famous is John Wayne's in the movie - of Crockett fighting to his death heroically. And obviously, there is - there's nothing to back that up.
In fact, it's funny. The best account we have of the battle was one that emerged only in 1955. It was an account written by a low-level officer in Santa Anna's army who fought there. And it's referred to as the de la Pena manuscript after years of people not really being quite sure if it was authentic. I think it's widely believed to be authentic now. And that - the de la Pena manuscript makes very clear exactly that he surrendered, and he was executed. And yet, when this all went public in the 1970s, well, a couple of books came out questioning how Crockett actually died. This was the beginning of the true - the type of thing that we're living with on a daily basis now, the clash between Alamo traditionalists and those who have been called revisionists who would like to look back at the actual Alamo, the historical Alamo, and try, if we can, just a bit to let go of the Alamo of our dreams.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Bryan Burrough. His new book with Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford is "Forget The Alamo: The Rise And Fall Of An American Myth." We'll be back in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Bryan Burrough. His new book with Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford takes an updated look at the Battle of the Alamo in the Texas war for independence. The book is "Forget The Alamo: The Rise And Fall Of An American Myth."
So there was this narrative established about the Alamo, the - what you call the heroic Anglo narrative, where this was a case of Anglo settlers faced with oppression, staged a fight for liberty, and the Alamo stands as this shrine to that battle. You know, when I was in seventh grade in Texas - I think every seventh grader is required to take a semester of Texas history. And people visit the Alamo. We all learn this stuff. A huge proportion of the Texas population is Latino, has been for decades. And you write about how this narrative and, you know, the Alamo and its presentation in San Antonio and the teaching about it affected Latino kids. Share that with us.
BURROUGH: I have to tell you, Dave, this is kind of the one thing that - unscientifically surveying our friends, our Anglo friends, not a one of them understood the degree to which the traditional Anglo-centric narrative of Texas history, and especially the Alamo, has beaten down our Latino neighbors. I mean, we talked to an awful lot of Hispanic academics, as well as ordinary people, about this. And they make the case that, you know, Mexican American kids can grow up in Texas believing they're Americans, you know, with the Statue of Liberty and all that until seventh grade, when you were taught, in essence, that if you're Mexican, your ancestors killed Davy Crockett, that that's kind of the original sin of the Texas creation myth. It has been used just anecdotally for generations to put down Mexican Americans. You know, big, beefy white guy going up to the little Mexican guy and punching him in the arm and saying, remember the Alamo, that type of thing.
And, you know, to an amazing degree - maybe because the Texas media is still dominated by Anglos, as well as the Texas government - that viewpoint has just never really gotten into the mainstream. The few times it has, you know, as with Rosie Castro, the Latina activist in San Antonio who is the mother of the two politician Castro brothers - came out in, I want to say, 2012 with a - you know, when asked about the Alamo and said that it was basically an Anglo land grab by these low-life mercenaries. And she was throttled online, especially in the right - by right-wingers. And, you know, so by and large, any time you've had any type of Latino voice come out and question the traditional Anglo narrative, they've been shouted down. And you see this type of thing happen not regularly, but somewhat regularly over the years.
And so we believed - we thought - and, you know, we're keenly aware that three middle-aged white guys are probably not the ideal purveyors of this idea. But nevertheless, we needed to show and needed to display the cost that Latinos have paid for this story over the years. And one of the reasons that it matters most is that Latinos are poised to become a majority in Texas, according to census data, almost every year. They outnumber Anglos in the state, who are only 41%. So if there's ever been a time for there to be a robust civic conversation - a debate, if you will - about this, about the place of the Alamo in our history, about Texas history itself, we'd hope it was now. We'd love if it could be now. Given the polarization that we live with day to day, will that happen in any civil way? We don't really know.
DAVIES: Well, you know, revisionist histories began to emerge, I guess, in the 1980s when people took another look at the historical record. And there were a lot of things about the original story, you know, that were challenged, including, for example, the role of people of Hispanic heritage at the time. A number of them - they were called Tejanos - were actually leaders in some cases of the rebellion, weren't they?
BURROUGH: The Tejanos, who were the Texians' key allies and a number of which fought and died at them at the Alamo, were entirely rewritten - were written out of generations of Texas history written by Anglo writers. This was mirrored very much in the kind of ethnic cleansing that went on after the revolution in which, you know, hundreds of Tejanos were pushed out of San Antonio and Victoria and existing towns, their lands taken, laws passed against their ability to marry white women and hold public office. The classic example of that, as you reference, is Juan Seguin, who was a Tejano and one of the leaders of the rebellion who fought - who was at the Alamo, got out early and fought at San Jacinto. Afterwards, while he was a top military official in San Antonio, he was essentially hounded out of San Antonio by white mobs, chased from farm to farm until he was forced to take refuge in Mexico, which basically threw him in a dungeon and said, you can either come back and fight the Texans, as he did in the Mexican-American War, or stay in a dungeon. And, you know, Seguin is kind of the classic tragic figure of all this.
DAVIES: And as these revisionist histories emerged, what sort of battles emerged among academics and among, you know, state lawmakers over how this would be treated at the site, how it would be taught in the schools?
BURROUGH: You know, there has not been a lot of squabbling among academics. When you look at the historical record - I'm not saying that there haven't been a quibble here and there, but by and large, academics have supported each other and begun to write a more consistent, historically accurate version of Texas history. The problem becomes when that version of history erupts into the mainstream. But all this basically just began erupting in the '70s, '80s and '90s. You know, for 150 years, Dave, this was pretty much all accepted as the way it was. And it was the only - only as people actually began examining history did you start to see these controversies arise - in the '70s over Crocket, then in the '90s when there was really an explosion of this. And really for the last 20 years, it's been just year in, year out squabbling to the extent that over the last five years, it's gotten particularly bad where you have literally, you know, camo-clad militia types in AR-15s occupying Alamo Plaza, saying you're going to change this place, you're going to change this history, over our dead bodies. Just Friday, LULAC, the oldest and largest Hispanic civil rights organization, 30 of their people showed up with copies of our book where they faced off with a bunch of militia types with rifles. It's crazy.
DAVIES: Well, Bryan Burrough, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BURROUGH: My pleasure.
DAVIES: Bryan Burrough's new book with Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford is "Forget The Alamo: The Rise And Fall Of An American Myth." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a book about a New Deal program to hire out-of-work American writers, many producing guidebooks for the 48 states of the union. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, one of the most idealistic of the New Deal programs was inaugurated. This one not only aimed to give white-collar workers jobs but also to define America for Americans. A new book called "Republic Of Detours" by Scott Borchert tells the story of the Federal Writers' Project. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: It sounds like the premise for one of those classic screwball comedies of the 1930s - thousands of out-of-work writers hired by the United States government to collaborate on books. What could possibly go wrong? The amazing thing about the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal program cooked up to get many novelists, reporters, librarians, teachers and poets working during the Great Depression, was just how much went right. The Federal Writers' Project employed on average 4,500 writers a month, many of them working on guidebooks for the then-48 states. A few of the illustrious broke writers given a hand by the project were Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel and John Cheever.
In his new book on the Federal Writer's Project called "Republic Of Detours," Scott Borchert cheekily refers to this list of famous alums as the potted roster that every book on the project necessarily cites. What he pulls off in "Republic Of Detours" is a dynamic and discriminating cultural history that speaks to both readers who know something about the project and those who don't. Like the American guides those Depression-era writers worked on, Borchert's book teams with colorful characters, scenic byways and telling anecdotes. His own writing style is full of verve, the much prized quality that so many of the guides themselves possessed. Throughout "Republic Of Detours," Borchert also makes a timely case for viewing these guidebooks, assembled in part out of ex-slave narratives and histories of economic struggles as presenting a multitudinous national story that was directly at odds with the Eurocentric whites-only one cherished by nativists.
That tug of war between two visions of America, as Borchert recognizes, has only intensified today and makes his excursion into the Federal Writers' Project and the American guides it produced much more than a nostalgic road trip. Borchert takes inspiration in structuring "Republic Of Detours" from the idiosyncratic waywardness of the guide books themselves. His chapters are dubbed tours, and they circle around key figures like, for instance, Henry Alsberg, a lawyer and journalist in his 50s who was at loose ends when he was appointed by Harry Hopkins, the head of the Works Projects Administration, to direct this quirky work relief project. Alsberg and his team quickly came up with the idea of guidebooks because such collective writing assignments would absorb a maximum number of jobless workers from the relief rolls.
Speaking at a Federal Writers' Project staff meeting, Harry Hopkins stressed that the welfare of human beings came first. Their literary qualifications came second. Consequently, one of the principles of the Federal Writers' Project was that it regarded writing as a craft like any other - or better, a form of labor. That inclusive definition attracted some peculiar applicants. In New York, Borchert tells, us a mail carrier applied because he was a man of letters. Despite its generous ambitions, however, the project was restrictive when it came to race. Borchert acknowledges that while some of the most talented Black writers in the country were concentrated in the New York City and Chicago offices, of roughly 4,500 workers in February 1937, only 106 of them were Black.
One of the most compelling writers whose story Borchert recovers here is that of Vardis Fisher, a temperamental, little-known novelist who directed the project in Idaho and pretty much wrote that state's guide himself. Driving around the state, Fisher would stop at nightfall and then write till midnight. He captured places like Henry's Lake, known for its marshy islands that rose and sank, legendary Native American burial grounds that vanished and reappeared with their cargo of dead. Clearly, like so many of the other American guides, Fisher's was a hybrid between a reference volume and a work of literature, a book that could rest in your car's glove compartment or on your nightstand.
In 1938, the Federal Writers' Project was investigated as un-American by a congressional committee led by the nativist Texas Representative Martin Dies. The committee claimed the American Guides offered a splendid vehicle for the dissemination of class hatreds. With its funding slashed in 1939, the project limped along to complete publication of all the states' guides. The overarching mission of the Federal Writers' Project, to, in its fragmented way, tell a more diverse and inclusive national story is, of course, a project that's still ongoing and still fiercely contested.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan reviewed "Republic Of Detours" by Scott Borchert. On tomorrow's show, we'll speak with Katherine Eban about the fight to uncover COVID-19's origins. She reports in Vanity Fair that those who pushed for transparency say toxic politics and hidden agendas prevented scientists from learning the origins of the virus and investigating whether a lab in Wuhan might have been the source. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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