by James L. Haley
University of Oklahoma Press
Published: April 2002
James Haley’s 2002 biography “Sam Houston” examines the life of a fascinating figure in early Texas-American history. Haley is the author of 14 books, including both fiction and non-fiction. Among his recent publications are a history of Hawaii and a biography of Jack London.
Readers familiar with Texas history (or America’s westward expansion more generally) are likely to recognize Sam Houston (1793-1863). He left home as a teen to live with a tribe of Cherokee Indians – for three years. Later he managed Texas’s war for independence, was President of the Republic of Texas, served as a U.S. Senator and, finally, was elected governor.
His personal life was no less exciting. He was thrice married and his final bride – 26 years his junior – bore him eight children. If Houston himself had never been born, it seems certain that an enterprising novelist would have felt compelled to create his roguish, adventuresome character – essentially a frontier-Texas version of Star Wars’ Han Solo.
But Sam Houston is hardly an undiscovered historical figure. The most notable among several worthy, but dated, biographies is Marquis James’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Raven: A Biography of Sam Houston” which was published in 1929. But Haley’s modern-day biography is supported by 15 years of research which included access to a significant cache of privately-held materials unknown to previous biographers.
To Haley’s credit, his narrative does an excellent job exploring the strengths and weaknesses of previous biographies of Houston. No less thoughtful are his ongoing efforts to separate the “myth” of Houston’s legend from the reality – to separate fact from fiction. Finally, there are wonderful moments that colorize Houston’s portrait nicely: an evening he spent with a jug of Madeira, an exploration of his closest relationships, and consideration of his peculiar penchant for dressing like a Cherokee chieftain…
But if this biography could hardly have been better researched, it is quickly clear that it could have been better written. Haley’s style is rarely vibrant or colorful and if there is a clear and engrossing way to describe an event, he often swerves to avoid it. More often, the narrative exudes a dry, clinical or aggressively matter-of-fact aura.
Readers unfamiliar with Texas history, the Texas Revolution or the broad cast of characters elemental to Houston’s era will find it difficult to fully appreciate much of the storyline. And for every robust introduction to a supporting character the book offers, there are several others (such as Davy Crockett, Sam Bowie, Stephen F. Austin and General Santa Anna) who would have benefited from a more mesmerizing and fulsome debut.
Finally, the narrative often fails to provide background or context. Combined with the author’s frequent failure to foreshadow or summarize important events or themes, many readers will quickly lose sight of the bigger picture and become lost in the weeds. But everyone who perseveres to the end will appreciate the indelible uniqueness of this early American.
Overall, James Haley’s biography of Sam Houston is a historian’s dream – the product of diligent research and exquisite care in uncovering and parsing the historical record. But for most other readers it may prove dense, dull and disappointing. Clearly, the definitive yet thoroughly engrossing biography of Sam Houston remains to be written…
Overall rating: 3½ stars