Jesse James: The Myth And The Man
by Louis Proyect
(Swans – September 22, 2008) After watching a DVD of The Assassination of Jesse James last November in anticipation of the yearly New York Film Critics Online awards luncheon, I was struck by director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik’s version of the famous 19th century outlaw. As played by Brad Pitt, this Jesse James was an unpredictable psychopath who reminded me of another character Pitt once played, the serial killer Early Grayce of Kalifornia.
Just after the movie ended, I searched for a review of a Jesse James biography that I had posted to the Marxism mailing list some years ago and that had remained in the back of my mind. This “revisionist” treatment of the bandit who loomed as an American Robin Hood in the popular imagination turned out to be T.J. Stiles’s biography Jesse James, about which Janet Maslin had this to say in the October 10, 2002, Sunday Book Review:
T.J. Stiles went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., a town famous as the site of the James-Younger Gang’s final showdown. Not until much later would Mr. Stiles realize what deep interest the place held for him. He is now the author of a fascinating revisionist biography of Jesse James, one that takes issue with the traditional image of the “Wild West outlaw, yippin’ and yellin’ and shooting it out with the county sheriff,” and with the folk-hero notion of James as a prairie Robin Hood.
In place of that, Mr. Stiles sees something more troubling and complex: “a transitional figure, standing between the agrarian slaveholding past and the industrial, violent, media-savvy future, representing the worst aspects of both.” In his intricate, far-reaching portrait of this legendary desperado, Mr. Stiles presents James as a Confederate terrorist caught up in the wild political turbulence of his times. In the secessionist stronghold of Clay County, Mo., “he learned that his enemies were not invading Yankees, but the men who lived next door.”
If T.J. Stiles had a personal connection to the James gang through Carleton College, so did I. I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, which is just south of Clay County, where Jesse James was born and raised. I always found it hard to reconcile my birth state’s geographical location with the existence of Confederate guerrillas and decided to read T.J. Stiles’s book to help me understand Civil War Missouri and to separate the man Jesse James from the myth.
As an amateur but scholarly film critic, I also wanted to survey Jesse James movies in order to see how he was depicted in popular culture over the years. This article is the fruit of that labor. It also led me in directions that I had not anticipated. To put it as succinctly as possible, the career of Jesse James and men like him had a profoundly reactionary and racist effect on American politics that continues to this day. It might be said that the two-party impasse of today grows out of the hell raised by Jesse James and his gang over 130 years ago.
The Wikipedia article on Jesse James lists 27 movies on the outlaw, including two silent movies starring his son Jesse James Junior! But the movie that had the biggest impact in establishing Jesse James as the American Robin Hood was the 1939 Jesse James, a production featuring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as his brother Frank. Since it was written by Nunnally Johnson, who would go on to write Grapes of Wrath two years later, it should not be surprising that the James brothers had a lot in common with Tom Joad, the Okie hero played by Henry Fonda. In both movies, the narrative pits misunderstood farm boys against the rich and the powerful. There are also echoes of Grapes of Wrath with Jesse James’s mother played by Jane Darnell, Tom Joad’s mother in Grapes of Wrath.
Central to the narrative of the 1939 movie is a struggle between powerful Yankee railroad barons and humble, mostly ex-Confederate, farmers defended by the James brothers. It was no accident that this conflict was played up since it is easier to identify with men and women fighting against a rapacious rail baron rather than for the preservation of slavery. In this movie and virtually all Jesse James movies, even the revisionist Brad Pitt opus, slaves are nowhere to be seen.
Well, not exactly. The James brothers have a loyal servant named Pinkie who used to be a slave until the rotten Northerners upset the apple cart. Played for laughs by Ernest Whitman, Pinkie is a shuffling, grinning racist stereotype straight out of Gone With the Wind, also made in 1939, where Whitman played a Carpetbagger’s partner — a villain in this racist classic.
Another important character is Major Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull), a newspaper editor who champions the James brothers’ fight against greedy railroad barons. This fictional character was clearly based on Major John Newman Edwards, a Confederate veteran and journalist who founded the Kansas City Times and who devoted himself to promulgating the myth of Jesse James as chivalrous fighter against Yankee oppression.
Apparently one American who made the connection between the 1939 movie version of Jesse James and contemporary struggles against plutocracy was folksinger Woody Guthrie, who like Tom Joad hailed from Oklahoma. Guthrie composed an ode to the bandit after seeing the movie. His lyric includes the following:
It was Frank and Jesse James that killed many a man,
But they never was outlaws at heart;
I wrote this song to tell you how it come
That Frank and Jesse James got their start.
They was living on a farm in the old Missouri hills,
With a silver-haired mother and a home;
Now the railroad bullies come to chase them off their land,
But they found that Frank and Jesse wouldn’t run.
Even before he had a chance to see the movie, Woody Guthrie was talking it up in the Daily Worker, the voice of the Communist Party:
Jesse James is a good picture –‘Course I have to wait till it gits down to the dime shows, but it’s a good picture anyhow — (After all, I reckon a dime is worth 40c to me… they must be awful scarce. I see where the Finance outfits are charging four bits for a dime.) The Railroad Racketeers hired Hoodlums & Thugs to beat and cheat the farmers out of their farms — and make em sell em for $1 an acre. Frank & Jesse robbed the train to get even. They robbed it so often that the engineer was disappointed on days they coodent get there.
Concurring with Woody Guthrie’s take on the famous bandit was one Earl Robinson, the Communist songwriter best known for The House We Live In. As cited in Irwin Silber’s Songs of the Great American West, Earl Robinson accepts the Robin Hood version:
He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,” they sang in later years…. And the folklore was based on fact. There wasn’t much point to stealing from the poor. Not unless you could work out a system the way the landlords did. And Jesse undoubtedly gave to the poor, and won loyalty, safety and shelter in times of need.
To the hard-pressed plains farmers of the 1870s, Jesse James indeed may have appeared as the agent of destiny’s vengeance. The outlaw’s victims were usually those twin traducers of the farmers’ labor and land — the railroads and the banks.
The legend of Jesse James loomed large in Woody Guthrie’s imagination. Not content to liken him to Robin Hood, he eventually wrote another song that implicitly compared Jesus to Jesse James. Based on the melody and lyrics of the traditional Jesse James ballad, Guthrie commemorates suffering scapegoats:
One dirty little coward called Judas Iscariot
Has laid Jesus Christ in his grave
He went to the sick, he went to the poor,
And he went to the hungry and the lame;
This is a variation on the original:
It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how he did feel,
For he ate of Jesse’s bread, and he slept in Jesse’s bed,
Then he laid poor Jesse in his grave.
In 1972, it was much harder to sustain these misty-eyed Popular Front illusions in Jesse James. After five years of brutal war in Vietnam, the U.S. had become a lot more hard-edged and cynical. That mood was reflected in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, an altogether forgettable movie based on the James gang’s ill-fated robbery attempt on a Minnesota bank tied to an abolitionist politician.
With Robert Duvall playing Jesse James as a kind of wanton thug, it points more in the direction of historical accuracy but as is the case with all movies based on the bandit, there is no attention paid to his white supremacy. Directed and written by Philip Kaufman, the movie has much in common with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Missing entirely from Kaufman’s version is any sense of Jesse James the historical figure. Unlike the rather crude figure played by Robert Duvall, the Jesse James of history had a very real sense of his historical purpose. The motivation to go hundreds of miles to Minnesota to rob a bank had less to do with access to money and more to do with a kind of last hurrah for the Confederate cause. James was a fully conscious counter-revolutionary and the Northfield bank was a symbol of Yankee domination.
Some films do try to tie Jesse James to his bushwhacker past. In Missouri, slavery was permitted as a result of a rotten compromise that was supposedly designed to preserve the Union. When the Civil War broke out, militias fought to determine whether the state would be free or slave. The pro-slavery militias were called bushwhackers and were led by men like William Anderson and William Quantrill of Quantrill’s Raiders fame. Pro-Union militias based in Kansas, a free state, were called Jayhawkers.
In 1950, Audie Murphy played Jesse James in Kansas Raiders, a movie that treated the Jayhawker-Bushwhacker struggle as essentially one over clashing visions of a “way of life.” Like just about every such movie, the daily lives of Missouri slaves do not enter the picture. The movie revolves around the relationship between Jesse James and William Quantrill played by Brian Donlevy as a kind of gentleman soldier who functions as a surrogate father to Jesse James. The dramatic conflict flows from Jesse James’s growing disgust with the killing of unarmed civilians. Initially, Quantrill encourages such behavior since his underlings demand blood vengeance, but eventually grows more inclined to adopt Jesse James’s Geneva Conventions approach to conducting war. The movie has nothing to do with the real lives of Quantrill and Jesse James, as we will soon see.
Although Jesse James does not appear in Ang Lee’s 1999 Ride With the Devil, it certainly deserves mention here as a serious if completely misguided bid to dramatize the Bushwhacker-Jayhawker conflict. Like the young and rather chaste character played by Audie Murphy in Kansas Raiders, Tobey Maguire of Spiderman fame is cast as Jake Roedel, a 19-year-old son of an abolitionist German farmer who decides to join up with William Quantrill to defend the Southern “way of life.” Once again, slaves do not enter the picture. The movie is close in spirit to the 1950 Kansas Raiders with the central drama revolving around Jake Roedel’s struggle to break with the Bushwhackers after seeing Quantrill’s brutality in action, especially in Lawrence, Kansas, the scene of a horrific massacre.
Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe to Live On, the movie is riddled with foolish inconsistencies and unexplained behavior. There is no attempt to explain why the son of an abolitionist father would join up with a pro-slavery militia, especially since he is the butt of xenophobic cracks the minute he joins their ranks. They call him Dutchy in reference to his German heritage but much worse depending on the amount of alcohol they have in their bloodstream. It also makes very little sense for somebody to risk his life on behalf of a “cause,” when there is no material interest in doing so. The men who joined Quantrill owned slaves. They bitterly resented the Yankees who would rob them of their property. Without such property, Jake Roedel is an unlikely recruit.
Even more muddled is the inclusion of a former slave named Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) who fights alongside his one-time master in Quantrill’s guerrillas. He is motivated to do so because of his love for the man who always treated him like a brother. Now it is true that blacks were part of the Confederate army toward the end of the Civil War but almost exclusively as valets and cooks, etc. Unfortunately, with the exclusion of any black slaves as characters in this film or any other based on the Jesse James legend, the net effect is confusion especially since Daniel Holt has so little to say about why he would want to be surrounded by racists who see him as subhuman. Nor does it try to explain why his master would fight for Quantrill after emancipating his slave. The movie is mostly about male bonding rather than anything else. For Ang Lee, the Missouri wars were about “America’s Bosnia,” a telling failure to understand the underlying class issues. A struggle to abolish slavery has little to do with ethnic-based militias fighting over territory, except in the mind of a confused postmodernist director.
Jesse James was born in 1847. His father was a preacher and hemp farmer named Robert James who left his wife Zerelda and family behind in 1850 to join the California gold rush. After he died out west, Zerelda remarried twice. The second marriage was to a physician named Reuben Samuel, who began farming with Zerelda soon afterwards. Farming was very lucrative in that period, especially when you could rely on the unpaid labor of Africans. Understandably, Zerelda became passionately devoted to the cause of slavery since her very livelihood depended on it. In all of the Jesse James movies, she is depicted as a doting and benign figure, but after reading Stiles you gather the impression that she had more in common with Ann Coulter.
Under the terms of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, slavery was permitted in a state whose economic foundations were quite different from that in the Deep South where very large plantations existed. The typical slave-owner tended to be like the James/Samuel family but just as committed to preserving the system as the Southern Bourbon class. It should also be stressed that the party in Missouri that fought most vigorously to protect the interests of slave-owners like Zerelda James Samuel was the same Democratic Party that has just nominated Barack Obama.
Once the Civil War began, Missouri turned into a battlefield between slave-owners and radicals. Unlike the war that raged toward the Eastern seaboard, the fighting was often done by “irregulars,” especially on the pro-slavery side. It also often spilled over the border between Missouri and Kansas, a free state. One of the early combatants was John Brown, who led an attack on slave masters four years before the war began.
Frank James, Jesse’s older brother by four years, joined a pro-slavery militia in 1863. After Union soldiers led an attack on the James/Samuel farm in search of Frank James, Jesse decided to become a combatant himself at the age of sixteen.
Despite filmic accounts, Jesse James did not take part in the Lawrence, Kansas, massacre although Frank James certainly did. On August 18, 1863, Quantrill’s Raiders conducted what can only be described as a terrorist attack on the abolitionist center, where black troops were recruited on behalf of the Union cause. Over 200 men and boys died that day. One of Quantrill’s men was heard to say, “One of them damned nigger-thieving abolitionists ain’t dead yet. Go and kill him.” This bit of dialog and nothing like it was ever heard in a Jesse James movie to be sure.
Eventually both of the James brothers joined William T. Anderson’s militia. Nicknamed Bloody Bill, Anderson was infamous for taking the scalps of his victims, civilian and military alike. Anderson led an attack on Centralia, Missouri, on September 27, 1864, that had all the earmarks of the Lawrence raid. They wreaked vengeance on an outnumbered Federal troop guarding the town. Stiles writes:
The bushwhackers now celebrated, becoming “drunk on blood,” Goodman [a Union sergeant] thought. Pool danced across a cluster of bodies, hopping from one to the other. “Counting ’em,” he explained. The rebels walked among the dead, crushing faces with rifle butts and shoving bayonets through the bodies, pinning them to the ground. Frank James bent down to loot one of the corpses, pulling free a sturdy leather belt. Others slid knives out of their sheaths and knelt down to work. One by one, they cut seventeen scalps loose, then carefully tied them to their saddles and bridles. At least one guerrilla carved the nose off a victim. Others sliced off ears, or sawed on heads and switched their bodies. Someone pulled the trousers off one corpse, cut off the penis, and shoved it in the dead man’s mouth.