Review of Jesse James: Last Rebel Of The Civil War
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/30/05
Update: T.J. Stiles Soils Himself Update 2: T.J. Stiles Goes Wild?
I have long fancied criminology as a hobby because of its similarity to poetry, in that both fields are based in large part upon the recognition of patterns. I’ve written many poems on serial killers, gangsters, and Old West outlaws. In doing so I’ve become, if not an expert, a good student of these deviant types. Thus, I feel especially qualified to opine about any book regarding Ted Bundy, Al Capone, or Jesse James. Which leads me into this book, Jesse James: Last Rebel Of The Civil War, from 2002.
Jesse James was, bar none, the most famous criminal of the Old West, in part because of his addictively alliterative name. He, alone, has racked up more words written about him than all the other outlaws combined- including notables like Billy The Kid, Butch Cassidy, and John Wesley Hardin. In fact, in Western lore perhaps only Wild Bill Hickok, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, or General Custer rival him in name recognition value, but in truth they’re battling for second place.
In this latest book by T.J. Stiles the author tries to reinvent the oft-framed James. To many the early dime book portrayals of James as a latter day Robin Hood have been hard to shake. Then there was James a cold blooded killer. Stiles offers James as the forerunner to modern day terrorists. Given the year of its release this thesis smacks of blatant profiteering. Yes, there’s no doubt that James got his start as a Missouri bushwhacker in the Confederate cause, and was undeniably racist. He was also a cold blooded killer, as well as bank and train robber. But, Stiles portrays this as all in the service to the lost Confederate cause, whereas even by the account of the letters it seems more proper to state James was merely being used by propagandists as a symbol of their lost Nirvana, rather than someone outright claiming to be its golden sun. And the tone of the letters James wrote, very few of which are actually quoted by Stiles, show more the psychopathic Jack the Ripper side of James, than the Osama bin Laden side.
In fact, in the whole of the book Stiles does a wonderful job of setting the scene that James grew up in. There are lengthy and detailed chapters of life in the Missouri slaveholding counties, the political tensions of the 1850s and 1860s, Bleeding Kansas, and all, but precious little new information on James, and his nefarious exploits, For the novice this presents the problem of leaving many blanks, and slanting the portrait of James toward that Stiles believes, rather than the real James that was. As for knowledgeable old pros like me, this makes Stiles arguments far less persuasive, for many stated facts are wrong, or distorted.
James got his start with Confederate guerillas such as William Clarke Quantrill, the destroyer of Lawrence, Kansas, and the psychopathic, and his eventually beheaded follower, Bloody Bill Anderson, with whom his older brother Frank was aligned with. However, while these were definitely bad men they were to today’s terrorists what stickball players are to Major League Baseball. Plus, Stiles is not convincing in portraying James’ career as a bank robber with having more to do with a political stand rather than manifest greed. Also, his sadism seems not to have been directed so much as agents of the North, or their remnants, as against any symbols of authority. Also, Frank James was never a hardened Confederate- merely a fiscal opportunist. Jesse James was only seventeen when the Civil War ended so to construe his infamy in the following decade with some political vengeance is a dicey proposition, all the more so since it seems less of what James was about and more of what Stiles has shoehorned him into. In fact, the middle third of the book seems far more devoted to the Civil War and its aftermath than anything having to do with James, and his feelings about it. It’s as if Stiles was writing as book about the frontier states during the Civil War when 9/11 happened, and he decided he needed a ‘selling point’ and plugged James into the role of ‘terrorist’ as an analog to hook the infamously forgetful modern generation.
The only problem with that assertion is that history doesn’t support it. When James went blazing into banks or onto trains he was not championing any cause save his own enrichment. Stiles, like many James supporters and detractors before him, seems more concerned with personalizing James for his own needs rather than evincing anything new. In this regard he shares much with James’ own first hagiographer, newspaperman John Edwards, who portrayed James as a good Southern boy battling against Radical Republican oppression to ‘achieve wartime goals by political means’. Yet, the real James, while a Southern sympathizer, was never more than just someone willing to use Edwards’ claims about him to his own advantage, and enrichment. Although Stiles claims that this boosterism and acceptance of Edwards’ mantle proves James was a highly political man, this is the extent of the evidence put forth.
That said, the book is a good read, but not for what it says about James as much as what it says about the milieu, for James becomes merely a pawn, rather than an actor in his own drama. Part of this is because virtually nothing is known of James’ early years, in narratives imparted by contemporaries. In a sense he is the American equivalent of Jesus Christ, a mythic figure who seems to have emerged fully formed. His death on April 3rd, 1882, at the hand of the cowardly and opportunistic Bob Ford, sealed his apotheosis from a contemporary figure whose name recognition already outstripped that of the President- Chester Arthur, for those in the know, to one whose name recognition will always be firm in Americana, as countless books and films on him have been proffered.
Yet, as promising as the book could have been, in moving Jesse James closer to Stonewall Jackson than Billy The Kid, it ultimately fails because of the immutability of facts in the face of misinterpretation, as many of the pivotal events of the war that Stiles tries to paint as influencing James are surprisingly bereft of his presence. Nothing is offered to bolster the idea that James was intimately involved in such atrocities as the burning of Lawrence, Kansas, or the Centralia Massacre of unarmed Union POWs. As for the later, more famed bank robbing adventures. These are glossed over so that a neophyte Jamesian might actually believe the skewed portrait that Stiles lays out, much as many of the claimed missives from James, highly politicized, have never been shown to have actually been written by James- so you get a house of cards built on a house of cards, and when you look just at the facts the common perception of James as cold blooded killer and bandit, rather than some sociopolitical rebel, seems far more the truth. That he liked it and offered braggadocio to the newspapers links him far more with Jack the Ripper and modern serial killers than it does with Osama bin Laden.
Detractors of the book seem to be mostly the hardcore Jamesians who have pointed out numerous factual errors in the book, ranging from the aforementioned embellishments to flat out wrong dates for crimes, and wrong cohorts at certain crimes. For example, Stiles claims James entered the bank at the famed and failed Northfield, Minnesota robbery, when no evidence suggests he did. There were also accounts of James being rather polite on some occasions, if not genteel, and stating he was only after the money. That does not square with a terrorist makeup, but more with a traditional brigand. Further evidence comes from Frank James, himself, to me the far more interesting brother and a wannabe intellectual, who showed no hint of being highly politicized after his brother’s death, and who had far more exposure to the war and its depravities, and easily slipped into the role of carny.
As for Jesse James? Due to the enigma of his youth it will never be possible to ascertain whether it was the war which baddened him, or whether he was a psychopath from birth. That he would have been a career criminal seems certain- the effect of the war may just have been to amplify that trait to legendary proportions. And with men like John Edwards simultaneously stroking his ego and grooming his legend it’s no wonder that later revisionists like Stiles tend to miss the mark.
Update: T.J. Stiles Soils Himself
Nearly three years after this review was published, the book's author decided to send me some nasty emails. It's pitiable. The ironic thing is that, since this review is one of my more popular reviews, due to last year's Jesse James flick with Brad Pitt, Stiles should be sending me part of his royalty checks!
T.J. Stiles <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Wed, Oct 8, 2008 at 5:50 PM
Dear Mr. Schneider:
I am writing to ask you to amend your review of my book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, posted on Amazon.com. The amendment would be to withdraw one claim. In your review, you make the demonstrably false and inflammatory charge that I attempted to profit from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by offering an interpretation of Jesse James as a figure best understood in the context of terrorism, rather than traditional brigandage.
If you had read the endnotes, you would see that I address September 11 specifically in the notes for the prologue. I had completed a draft of my manuscript, and was revising it when the attacks happened. I in no way changed my interpretation because of that attack. Indeed, my projected title for the book, when I received a contract for it in 1998, was "American Terrorist," and the only modifications I made were to tone down some of my early conclusions in that respect. You may not be aware of the production schedule of book publishing, but it is absurd to think that I could have rewritten an entire manuscript to weave in the political interpretation throughout the book in order to profit from the deaths of so many, in time for hardcover publication.
Personally, I find the charge deeply offensive, reckless, and despicable. I was a longtime resident of New York at the time of the attacks, and could smell the smoke of the World Trade Center in my apartment before the second tower fell. I feared for the life of my wife until late in the afternoon.
As to the rest of your review, you are certainly entitled to your opinion. You may wish to continue reading the endnotes, however, as you will discover that there is no basis to any of your other criticisms. In a number of cases, you are factually wrong. There are no letters from Jesse James that I did not cite; I believe I quote from all of them. (I would be very happy to have your list of the letters not mentioned in my book.) I never said that Jesse James was at the Lawrence Massacre. I offer new, primary-source evidence that Jesse James was at the Centralia Massacre. I offer evidence that he did enter the bank at Northfield, and discuss at length why I differ from some other accounts. I combed through primary-source evidence, and found that many of the "facts" regarding robberies offered by previous writers were, in fact, wrong. Repetition in previous publications does not make something so. I based my work on primary sources, all cited in the endnotes and fully checkable.
In fact, you may wish to reread my entire book again, more carefully this time. I say throughout that Jesse James was in it for the money first and foremost, that his personality was bent toward violence because of the Civil War. But what separated him from all other outlaws was his insistence on bringing politics into his crimes and public persona. I do admit that I am offering an interpretation, but it is one that pays more attention to the existing evidence, I believe, than the interpretations of previous writers. Your arguments to the contrary fly in the face of all evidence, with none to show for your case.
Of course, you are entitled to be sloppy in your reviewing, and to disagree with me. But accusing me of attempting to profit from 9/11--a provably false charge--is over the line.
From: Dan Schneider
Recall, as I state, the review is marginally positive. I then added:
From: Dan Schneider
Then, Stiles started weeping. Note how he claims he did not read my emails, when he clearly notes what they contained. A fool and child:
On Thu, Oct 9, 2008 at 5:59 PM, T.J. Stiles <email@example.com> wrote:
I have no idea who you are, and I don't care. I hope you didn't work hard on your e-mails, because I didn't read them. Don't bother to respond; I won't read your next one either. I, for one, speak the same way to an individual's face as I do via e-mail; I'm pretty sure you don't.
I've had good reviews and bad, and accept that it's perfectly reasonable to disagree with me, if the disagreement is grounded in actual knowledge. I have responded to reputable reviewers on my website; you might want to look up my response to Michael Fellman's review. Your thoughts? It would be difficult for me to care less.
But childish accusations of profiteering off 9/11? When, if you had done your reading, you would know is scurrilous? Yeah, you're a real class act.
That's something to brag to mom about.
I then destroyed him:
From: Dan Schneider
In a humorous aside, not long after the above repartee, an interesting thing occurred on the Amazon page for the above reviewed book, It seems someone keeps falsely reporting my expurgated piece of this review there as 'offensive,' even though that is absurd. Is old T.J. still soiling himself? Every time I add it back some moron tries to delete it. Hmmm? DAN
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