Thursday, August 23, 2007

One more post on my new Jesse James fixation

a long-dormant interest brought to the fore again by a recent road trip through Missouri. The fact that there is some fairly recent scholarship on the James Gang gave me a hankering to upgrade the subject to the top of the bedside book stack.

It was easy work to determine which modern biographies are being taken seriously by dedicated outlaw and guerilla aficionados: Ted P. Yeatman's, Frank and Jesse James, the Story Behind the Legend (2000), and T. J. Stiles's, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002).

By way of a clarification, let me say that this blog entry is not intended as a review of the two books in question. I haven't read either one. I'm just shopping. I purchased the Yeatman book in Liberty, and have ordered the other. My sense, based on reviews, is that both are different enough, and substantial enough, to warrant reading. I'll try to get through both of them and report back, or at the very least, report why I might have finished one and come up short on the other. However it shakes out, I feel confident that the combination of the two will serve to make me obnoxiously fluent in Jesse James trivia.

I'll begin with Yeatman's, because it's already on my kitchen table. I like the look and feel of this book, sporting as it does the fat back matter of a deeply-researched study. As I looked for information on both titles, it became immediately apparent that Stiles' book quickly eclipsed whatever fanfare Yeatman's book might have enjoyed. At first blush, I would attribute that to the fact that Yeatman's work was released by a small publisher, while Stiles' biography was published and marketed by Knopf, a major house. But maybe there's more to the picture. The website Stiles has devoted to Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War is impressively loaded with interesting content. There are numerous reviews of Last Rebel available online, and many of themincluding critiques by such notable Civil War historians as Michael Fellman, Albert Castel, and Eric Foner, are found at the Stiles site. Interestingly, one of the minor problems Castel identifies is "an over-reliance on the not-always-reliable Eric Foner's propagandistic Reconstruction, 1863-1877: America's Unfinished Revolution." Ouch.

As an aside, Drew Wagenhoffer, in his Civil War Books and Authors blog, has mentioned the Civil War St. Louis website, which is chock full of intriguing links. They have done a nice job with Jesse James material.

Laura [James-in-law] James, over at the endlessly engaging CLEWS: the Historic True Crime Blog, offers a nice, meaty blog entry on the dueling James biographies, including mention of a Yeatman/Stiles "shootout" on the History News Network. Laura establishes her James bona fides by correcting a number of details from Stiles' book. She calls it nitpicking, but every detail, and every error, counts (and for you Civil War types, the more obscure the correction, the better).

I'm a big, big fan of Booknotes transcripts from the old C-SPAN show (did that show go away in 2004?). Mr. Yeatman managed an appearance there, which is no small thing. You can read that here. Unfortunately, he doesn't really answer the question, "Now how does your book fit into all the books that have been written? What's so special about this that you couldn't get in any other book?"

Finally, my commentary on Ron Hansen's novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, will have to wait for another entry. It's just as well, as it deserves to be discussed apart from nonfiction bios.


DW@CWBA said...

The CW Missouri literature (really the guerrilla war in particular) is perhaps unique in its persistence of side-taking, and dearth of middle ground. And it only increases the closer you get to the MO-KS border. Agendas prevail and balance often means you start at one extreme and make cautious, token feelers toward the middle. Writers are immediately labelled pro- or anti- [Castel often finds himself in this predicament]. Much of this nonsense kills the interest I might have in figures such as James, so I find your last two posts on the subject very intriguing. I see the Stiles book in stores quite frequently (and have been tempted), but confess to not having seen much of the other book. I look forward to your updates.

I am a big fan of Booknotes as well. The new website actually has many of the old programs on video feed (I recently viewed the interview with Harold Bloom). Yes, Lamb did end the program a couple years ago, to be replaced by that often abysmal (but a rather good conceptual idea) "After Words" program.

Anonymous said...

Here is a link to the trailer for the new Jesse James Movie

Dixie Dawn said...

Hi Dave, This is Dixie Dawn, Just found your site. I loved this Information on Jessie James, it too is a fixation of mine and I look forward to following up on these links so glad you posted this!! I had wanted to leave you a more personal note but since you can moderate this I thought I would write. I wanted to thank you for engaging in the conversation you had with me on my page. I am truly being sincere. Seeing your background, I am most humbled, as I am only a nurse and dance teacher with an interest. However it has been brought to my attention on anther website that I am much lower than that and you have great patients to have endured such a task as speaking to one such as myself. For what its worth, I don't base my entire views on the Kennedy book,I do read and study real material, I just thought it was interesting and I had a really good time talking to you and I enjoy your reviews and blogs here. I try my best to be upstanding yet keep my convictions, what can I say. And I choose to come and tell this to you as oppose to those that wrote about me, because your the one who gave me the time of day in the first place. It was and has been a most pleasant experience. Thank you.

Most Respectfully,

dw said...

Hi Dawn,

I'm glad you found your way over here. I also enjoyed our exchanges over at your blog. I especially appreciate that you're not so strident in your opinions as to make you unreceptive to contrary views, and information. The fact is, even all these years after the war, there's a strong inclination for each of us to choose sides in that very old fight.

Just as in the world of Civil War books, there are harsh critics in the world of Civil War blogs, and critiques can be pretty condescending. I'm guilty of that myself from time to time. I might have been dismissive toward you as well, had I not tried to engage you in conversation. I saw that you'd spent some years in Iowa (where I spent my formative years), so figured you spoke the language -g-.

Just keep feeding your interest in that part of our shared history by reading as much as you can, and your blog will necessarily reflect that growing understanding.

Of course in the real world, one nurse does more good than all the Civil War bloggers and their snide comments put together.

Thanks for dropping by.