Jesse James, in spite of over a century of pop culture transforming him into a posthumous hero, not to mention his own efforts and that of his allies to turn him into one in his own time, was generally a pretty terrible guy.
He did have something of an agenda, shaped by the time and the place in which he lived, a Missouri in turmoil in the period prior to, through, and after the Civil War of the United States.
And that shaping is the frame within which biographer T.J. Stiles investigates the who and the why of Jesse James in Jesse James: Last Rebel Of The Civil War.
I found the book frustrating in the beginning of my readings…my only prior knowledge of James came mostly from the wonderfully moody The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. I dove in expecting a very Jesse-centric biographical story, building from the childhood of the figure into the man seen in his final days in the movie I so love.
The approach Stiles takes is less direct, however, spending much time discussing the politics and culture of Civil War era Missouri. Indeed, many a page will turn without a single mention of James himself. It’s all worth it in the end though…the knowledge of that time and place is an eye-opening adventure. And when applied to Jesse James, one gains an understanding of his motivations beyond “famed outlaw” and “pain in the side of the railroads”.
Does the time and place he comes from justify his deeds? I’d say not, but you’d have to read for yourself to decide. The ruthlessness of his actions, the cutting down of those unarmed and defenseless because of their perceived association with larger powers Jesse loathed (or just because they were in his way) would be hard to justify on the most legitimate of missions, let alone from a man striking back against abolitionists.
So, terrible, yes. But pretty damn fascinating as well.AtND Book Club #1 Jesse James: Last Rebel Of The Civil War T.J. Stiles