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Sam's Song : SWORD OF SAN JACINTO: A Life of Sam Houston, By Marshall De Bruhl (Random House: $25; 396 pp.) : SAM HOUSTON: A Biography of the Father of Texas, By John Hoyt Williams (Simon & Schuster: $27.50; 433 pp.) : EMPIRE OF BONES: A Novel of Sam Houston and the Texas Revolution, By Jeff Long (William Morrow: $22; 256 pp.)

March 21, 1993|Larry L. King | Larry L. King has written of politics and history for Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, American Heritage and The Texas Observer

Fifty years ago, in the public schools of Texas, I was taught that Sam Houston (Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Texas during its War of Independence against Mexico, conqueror of Gen. Santa Anna's army at the Battle of San Jacinto, two-term president of the short-lived Republic of Texas, later U.S. senator and then governor of Texas) was my home state's all-time hero--excluding, possibly, those 187 martyrs who in 1836 died at the Alamo, nothing assisting martyrdom half as efficiently as hopeless, romantic death.

What I was not taught about Sam Houston then would have filled any number of innocent schoolboy heads with shock, disbelief, anger, horror and perhaps--among the relative few preferring their history taught with the bark on rather than fumigated--surges of secret admiration for the complex, brawling, proud, egoistical, weird-drinking, tall-tale-telling, debt-ridden, theatrical, part scoundrel, part hero that Sam Houston in truth was.

Though Sam Houston's darker secrets have long been in the public domain, he retains a firm grip on my native state's affections and its need to hone its heroes and polish its legends. Fifty-odd celebrations are scheduled across the Lone Star State in this 200th anniversary year of Houston's birth in rural Virginia, and I would wager a herd of longhorns that speakers rising to acclaim him will take great care to sanitize him.

A plethora of Sam Houston books--some new, some reissued--join the celebration. Of the three considered here, those by Marshall De Bruhl and John Hoyt Williams are cradle-to-grave biographies. Jeff Long's novel concentrates on the Battle of San Jacinto, where Houston's ragged Texas irregulars of about 750 men, after retreating for 40 days in what the soldiers themselves called the "Runaway Scrape," caught Gen. Santa Anna's troops at siesta time and butchered the superior forces within 20 minutes.

Using the poetic license of fiction, Long makes us privy to philosophical ruminations in Sam Houston's head. In so doing, he perhaps paints him in more saintly hues than in those primary colors limiting biographers. But Long's fiction also makes more gaspingly real the horrors and butcheries of battle, the disease and filth and mud of the field, than do the less passionate recitations of the nonfiction authors. And yet, if one would understand Sam Houston and his time, one must prefer the more complete reports of De Bruhl and Williams.

Sam Houston was nothing if not a walking contradiction. Though he fought secessionists and urged the preservation of the federal union rather than civil war, he died owning a dozen slaves and passed them on to his descendants. Though he lived with the Cherokees--even marrying one--and championed the honoring of Indian treaties, he was as one with his mentor and personal hero, Andrew Jackson, in the policy of removing Indian tribes from their historic lands and sending them to lesser pastures when they inconvenienced white-settler expansions. And though he battled for certain Indian rights in hostile corridors of Washington, he was not above profiting as an Indian trader and may well have sold them forbidden whiskey.

Sam Houston's oratorical flights invoked liberty and justice with every breath, yet he was an unabashed expansionist who believed that the Florida Purchase from Spain could be interpreted as including huge land masses all the way to the Pacific Coast. His defeat of Mexico, as head of the Texas Army, eventually permitted the United States to claim and settle all or part of 10 new states. Even as he publicly spoke of the glory of the Republic of Texas while serving as its first president, he privately wrote to President Jackson of his desire to see Texas annexed, and of his doubts that Texas could maintain its independence: "I am free to say to you that we cannot do it. I look to you as the friend and patron of my youth and the benefactor of mankind to interpose in our behalf and save us."

This man of many parts was capable of joining the Catholic Church--in order to qualify as a landowner in Mexican Tejas--while simultaneously filing for a divorce from one of his three wives. And though he wrote moony letters and florid poetry to each of his wives in turn, professing great love and agony over being apart from them, through a combination of wanderlust, ambition and answering history's call (to say nothing of wenching and drinking) he was so rarely home that he missed the births of four of his eight children.

For almost the span of his life (1793-1863), Houston had trouble sustaining relationships with family and friends. He was prone to quit homes, jobs, businesses or elective offices when faced with rejection or when things did not go his way; almost always he sought solace in the bottle and in wanderlust.

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