—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 them—including 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.