Book Review: The Raven, A Biography of Sam Houston (1929)

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Published on: 2013.05.21

Title: The Raven, A Biography of Sam Houston
Author: Marquis James
Year: 1929
Publisher: University of Texas Press, Austin
ISBN 0-292-77040-5
View it on Amazon
View it on Google Books
Sam Houston on Wikipedia

This book was awarded the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for “Biography or Autobiography” (James is one of the very few people who’ve won multiple Pulitzers, and one of only eight who’ve won twice or more in the Biography category.) For most of the book, I kept wondering why it had won such a highly coveted award, but by the end the cumulative effect of the narrative was powerful.

It’s irritatingly written in contemporary style, which might have been easy to read in the early 1900s, but was difficult to read in the early 2000s. There are lots of words no longer commonly used, like puncheons, trace (a path or trail that has been beaten out by the passage of animals or people), and rooftrees. And that’s just from flipping a few pages.

There are also plenty of one-liners that still ring true, such as: “It is hard for a soldier to have any home life.”

There are references to things that a person in the 1920s might have known, like “the Tidewater manner” and the bursting of “the Burr bubble”, apparently referring to Aaron Burr, though it’s not clear.

The story begins with John Houston’s arrival in the Colonies in 1730, and quickly moves through his son Robert Houston and grandson Samuel Houston, to the main subject Sam, born March 2, 1793. The Houstons moved from Virginia to Tennessee, and there the story stays for a while, not getting to Texas until much later.

(For those of you in New York City, familiar with Houston (House tun) Street, the book’s first endnote explains that the name originated in the 1100s in Scotland when Hugh Padvinan founded Hugh’s Town (Hughstoun), so it is properly pronounced HEW stun.)

I’d had Texas History class in the 7th grade, so you’d expect I would know a bit more about Sam Houston. But the book was full of information that I hadn’t known before. For example, I didn’t know that “The Raven” was his Indian name, given by the Cherokees with whom he lived for several years in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

This interesting man who helped shape Texas (and therefore the entire United States) fought in the war of 1812 under Andrew Jackson, taught himself law and became a prosecuting attorney, commanded the Tennessee state militia, was elected to Congress from Tennessee, and then was elected governor of that state. (His re-election bid failed when his first marriage dissolved and he left for Oklahoma.) After a highly publicized trail in Washington, D.C., — for beating a Congressman with a hickory cane — in which he was defended by Francis Scott Key — he went to the Mexican state of Coahuila (which included what would become Texas). He commanded the Texan armies in its battle for independence, was twice elected President of the Republic of Texas (serving as a Texas House member in between the two terms), the after Texas’ statehood was elected U.S. Senator from Texas, and then was Governor of Texas — making him the only person in history to have been popularly elected as the governor of two different states.

His term as governor ended when Texas seceded from the Union in 1860 and the secessionists ran him out of office when he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the confederacy. He unpopularly predicted that the Civil War would be long and bloody, and that the North would win:

“Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.”

Wikipedia’s entry on Sam Houston (oddly) doesn’t mention that Houston attempted to run for U.S. President in 1860, one of the most fractured presidential elections in our country’s history. As it became obvious that the election would be all about abolition versus slavery, union versus secession, the nation’s established parties split into many. Former Whigs, the Know Nothings, and some former southern Democrats formed the Constitutional Union party, the goal of which was to avoid secession. Going into their first and only national convention, held in Baltimore, journalists and those in the know felt that Houston would be the uncontested nominee. But by the time the convention ended, the party had nominated John Bell over Houston. Houston reluctantly supported Bell in the coming election, with the party taking Electoral College votes in three states (Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee), and 12.6% of the nationwide popular vote behind Lincoln (Republican, 39.8%), Douglas (Democrat, 29.5%), and Breckinridge (Southern Democrat, 18.1%).

The book made me feel like I was right there with him during some of this. But in other places, it felt oddly detached.

Reading about his children made me feel not quite so old. He married a 21-year-old when he was 47, and then had seven children. Among his descendants were a future U.S. Senator, state senator, and governor’s wife.

Sorry, this review turned out to be more of a history summary. Here’s my conclusion on the book: The man himself and his life was so fascinating that he shone through the hard-to-read language of the book.

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