Stephen Jay Gould, the eminent scientist and Harvard professor, was interested in human pattern recognition in stories. He referred to the patterns that human minds want to create as “canonical stories.” His essay entitled “Jim Bowie’s Letter and Bill Buckner’s Legs”, which appears in I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History, describes two famous stories — one of Jim Bowie at the Alamo and the other of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.
Gould explains how both of these stories have often been patterned into the form of a canonical story. In the Alamo story, the canon focuses on the Alamo defenders’ valor and honorable death. William B. Travis, a young commander at the Alamo, wrote a letter describing the siege, which ends with the phrase “VICTORY OR DEATH.” (60) This famous letter is often cited in Alamo legend, but Gould points out that Bowie also wrote a letter, which fails to get mentioned because it does not fit with the canon. (60) He goes so far as to say Bowie’s letter is “hidden in plain” sight, ignored in a glass case at the Alamo museum. (60-61) Bowie thought that Santa Anna was willing to negotiate, and he wrote in Spanish to Santa Anna asking whether Santa Anna had called for a parley. (61-62) Santa Anna responded that he would have no mercy without unconditional surrender. (62)
Gould then surmises that even with this response, had Bowie been less ill, “some honorable solution would eventually have emerged through private negotiations” because Santa Anna and Bowie were seasoned battle veterans. (62-63) Continue reading “Stephen Jay Gould on Jim Bowie, Bill Buckner, and Storytelling”