Wednesday, December 21, 2005

In a new biography, Levy sifts Crockett's myth from the man

Author returns home for book signing


Buddy Levy

Buddy Levy never thought of himself as a historian. Nevertheless, on Dec. 29, Levy's "American Legend: the Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett," will be released by New York's Putnam publishing house and Levy will come home to Ketchum for a reading and book signing at Ketchum's Iconoclast Books. It seems, despite his own predictions, that Levy has become that which he never imagined himself to be.

Levy, 45, currently resides in Moscow, Idaho, where he has taught writing at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., for 17 years. He is a product of Hemingway Elementary School, The Community School and a graduate of Wood River High School. Before writing "American Legend," his writing had been focused largely on sports, and adventure racing in particular.

"Three years ago, when I was sitting in Greenland and covering adventure-racing, I had no notion that this would be something I would be doing," Levy said of his recent incarnation as a historical writer. For eight years, he covered eco-racing (also known as adventure racing), and was deeply involved with the sport, covering the extreme adventure athlete Rebecca Rusch before she moved to Ketchum.

"I had been covering eco-challenges in places like Borneo and Argentina for the Discovery Channel and a wide range of national magazine outlets," Levy said. Historical non-fiction, then, "was quite a departure from what I had been doing."

Not long after proposing a novel about adventure racing to a New York literary agent, though, Levy's eyes were opened to the possibilities of literary non-fiction. His first published work was "Echoes on Rimrock: In Pursuit of the Chukar Partridge," a natural history of the game bird.

"The book has good recipes in it," said Jean Levy, Buddy's mother and a receptionist at the Mountain Express. Jean remarked that she enjoyed her son's first book, despite not possessing any fundamental interest in game birds.

"At least he mentioned that his mother cooked the birds," she said.

With Crockett, Buddy Levy found a man and a story that was naturally conducive to both his intellectual curiosity and his scholarly leanings. Crockett was a man, Levy says, who was very much a self-promoter and a careerist; he was always in control of his image.

That is, until he died. After he died, the story of Crockett became "a character in a coonskin cap created by Walt Disney," Levy said. "Everything after his death has served to further confuse or obfuscate what this guy was in history."

Yet, as discussed in the book's prologue, Crockett was always both a man and a myth. The introduction tells the story of Crockett in 1833 (three years before his death at the Alamo, when he was serving as a Congressman from Tennessee) attending the Washington opening of a play entitled "The Lion of the West," which was based on Crockett's life and adventures.

Before the play begins, the lead actor walks to the front of the stage, pauses and takes an appreciative bow to Crockett, sitting in the front row. The Congressman, by this point a major living celebrity, stands and returns the favor.

Levy describes the moment with the elegant and muscular prose he employs throughout the book:

"(Crockett) ... returns the bow, and in that moment pays homage to his very own growing legend, to the myth he is destined to become. The poignancy of the moment, the odd mirroring image, captivates the audience and they erupt in a frenzy of cheers and applause.

"The man they cheer is Col. David Crockett of the state of Tennessee, and the scene is a remarkable and powerful confluence of fiction and fact, of legend and man.

"The ovation roars on, and as Crockett finally bows to the audience and takes his seat, he must understand that his present situation is unique—for the man, alive and in the flesh, has just met his own myth."

Levy is drawn to the dichotomy of Crockett as both real and imagined and his book strives to cleave fact from fiction. He knew that Crockett was a worthwhile subject when he began to realize just how deeply confused the man and the myth had become.

"When I was first thinking of writing the book, a well-read friend asked, 'Was Crockett a real guy?' and I thought, 'If a person with a graduate degree, an exceptionally well-read American citizen, doesn't know if this guy is real or not, then something has gone on with his persona that has been so mythologized that we don't even know what was real and what wasn't."

Levy worked on the book, doing extensive traveling and exhaustive research, for two years. The book, a handsome hardcover creation of the Putnam art department—with considerable input from Levy as well—is a sizable feather in his cap.

Asked whether his book will be researched, referenced and counted among the most authoritative and comprehensive Crockett biographies, Levy was confident. "I think it will stand the test of time," he said.


Crockett days

Buddy Levy will read from his literary biography, "American Legend: The Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett," and sign copies at Iconoclast Books, Main Street, Ketchum, on Dec. 29 at 7 p.m.

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