Tulsa World Features Michael Wallis

Posted on Sunday, May 8th, 2011 in News

Michael Wallis goes wild in new books on the West
by James D. Watts Jr.

It’s not often that a writer can pinpoint the exact moment of inspiration for a given book.

But, in the case of his latest biography, Tulsa writer Michael Wallis knows exactly when he first became fascinated by the subject.

It was the evening of Dec. 15, 1954, when the 9-year-old Wallis watched “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter,” the first of five episodes about the frontiersman that aired during the first season of what would become “The Wonderful World of Disney.”

“I was one of millions of kids smitten by that program,” Wallis recalled, during a conversation in his book-and-memorabilia filled workspace. “I went back and watched the series recently, and it is so bad, so cornball. It was a very typical Disney production – anyone who might get shot never bleeds, that kind of thing.”

The Disney shows also played into the mythology that surrounded Crockett’s life and exploits, typified by the line in the show’s theme song, about how Crockett “kilt him a b’ar when he was only three.”

“The main focus of everything I’ve done as a writer has been to set the record straight, to get the facts right,” Wallis said. “For me, the truth about person or a place or a time is always better – and usually a great deal stranger – than any fiction.”

Wallis, the author of “Route 66: The Mother Road” and “Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride,” has three books coming out almost simultaneously.

One is “David Crockett: The Lion of the West” (W.W. Norton, $26.95), in which Wallis works to remove the fog of fable that has obscured Crockett’s true – and fascinating – life story.

The second is “The Wild West: 365 Days” (Abrams, $32.50), part of that publisher’s series of books that fits a wealth of information on a given topic into a year’s time line. Wallis collaborated with his wife, Suzanne, and Western history photography expert Robert McCubbins on this book.

The third is a reissue of “Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd” (W.W. Norton, $16.95), Wallis’ 1992 biography of the Depression Era bandit that has been out of print for years.

“Another thing I’ve always been attracted to as a writer are the rascals,” Wallis said. “Not necessarily criminals, but people who aren’t too bound by convention, who are willing to stir things up.

“If there’s one thing that ties these books together, it’s that,” he said. “For example, in the ‘Wild West’ book, there is not a single lawman mentioned in it who did not at some time in life, follow ‘the outlaw trail.’ We tend to mythologize people so much. The Earps, for example, they were just a bunch of scoundrels.”

In deciding on a time span to contain the history of “The Wild West,” Wallis ultimately chose the century 1830 to 1930, which covers everything from the Indian Removal that would forcibly transplant the Five Civilized Tribes to Oklahoma to the start of the criminal career of Pretty Boy Floyd.

In that way, Wallis acknowledged, “The Wild West: 365 Days” is a kind of link between his other two books, as Crockett was an opponent of his one-time mentor Andrew Jackson’s plan to rid the Southeastern United States of the Indian nations that had lived for centuries.

“Crockett had seen the atrocities done to the Indian people, and he was quite brave to stand up to Jackson on this issue,” he said.

The popular conception of Crockett is as a rough-hewn, buckskin-wearing fellow in a coonskin cap who was the last man standing when the Alamo was overrun by the Mexican army in 1836.

Little of that is accurate, Wallis said.

“One of the things that surprised me in researching Crockett was his ability with language, verbally or on the page,” he said. “I found the copy of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’ that he read in preparation to writing his own autobiography.

“He was familiar with Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and he was able to present a rather broad scope of knowledge with that kind of peculiarly American homespun sense of humor,” Wallis said.

Crockett’s death at the Alamo tends to overshadow everything else about his life – as a professional hunter, as an explorer, as a member of Congress – in part because it is the most mythologized aspect of Crockett.

“I give people a kind of jump-ball when it comes to Crockett’s death,” Wallis said, chuckling. “You have the two extremes – that he was the last to die, swinging his rifle about with 300 dead Mexicans at his feet, or that he disguised himself as a woman and sneaked away in shame.

“I prefer something in the middle of that,” he said. “There is a recently discovered diary by a soldier with the Mexican army, who recounts how Crockett was one of a few survivors of the siege, and that they were executed on (Mexican general) Santa Ana’s orders.”