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Homeland Insecurity

Jesse James: the making of a murderer and unmaking of a myth.

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On the off-chance you think terrorism on American soil is a 21st-century phenomenon, consider mid-19th-century Missouri and especially its westernmost counties, known as "Little Dixie." Here scattered bands of fighters -- "Radical" Republicans versus slave-holding Unionists versus diehard secessionists -- waged war on one another and against any citizen, white or black, who got in their way. Here the battlefields predated and outlasted the Civil War. Here the politically motivated or entirely senseless murder of unarmed and innocent men, women, and children disrupted civil society. Here the robber and killer Jesse James -- a "bushwhacker" for the Confederate cause; later, the "social bandit" and publicity hound of myth -- got his ideological start and met his violent end. And here is T.J. Stiles, the author of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (new in paperback from Vintage), on his ground-breaking, awarding-winning book:

The Flyer: The main text of Jesse James is 400 pages, with an additional 100 pages of notes and bibliography, and for long stretches, Jesse James is not even on the scene. How concerned were you that readers would lose sight of him?

T.J. Stiles: Jesse James was an underground figure. He lived outside the law. Because we don't have a lot of detailed information about his life, a better understanding of his times was necessary. James illuminates American history, the big turning points of our history, and the Civil War and Reconstruction have certainly made us who we are as a people. James' life is every bit as colorful and dramatic as legend would have it, and yet he was more illustrative of his period than people have realized.

This is Jesse James strictly according to the historical record. What surprised even you in that record?

James has been thought of as a Robin Hood figure, a social bandit. But here is a guy who identified himself as a Civil War figure -- anti-Republican and anti-Reconstructionist. So I went into my research thinking that this explicitly political stance, revealed in his letters to the press, should be taken seriously. But I also thought there would be some agrarian, populist element to his outlook to account for his popularity. There's no evidence whatsoever for that element in James' outlook. The "surprise" was that my thesis was more true than I'd realized.

Richard Nicholls in his review of your book last year in The New York Times wrote that "James's horrific experiences in the war closed off parts of his personality, suspending him in a kind of emotional adolescence." Fair to say?

I think so. Both Jesse and his older brother Frank were very violent men. And yet Frank was able to abandon the criminal life. I think in part it's because Frank was already an adult -- a young adult -- when the Civil War came. Jesse, on the other hand, came of age amidst violence. His earlier life had been filled with family turmoil and here he was, 13 years old when the Civil War struck. His life from then on was immersed in violence. It was threaded into his personality. But I tried to avoid playing "armchair analyst." I may shed light on who he was, but I cannot offer definitive answers.

Typically, when serious historians write about Jesse James, they say he loved violence, he was an "adrenaline junkie," he liked attention. Those things are true, but that was true of a lot of criminals after the Civil War. I argue that James also had an ideological outlook. The myth of James as social bandit is trod territory -- James as a symbol for the pre-political protest of the frontier farmer against overshadowing forces. That interpretation of him applies to his mythical image, not to the historical reality.

And yet that image survives.

There's a certain culture of extremists who believe that the political system will never work for them -- a secessionist impulse, this taking of violence into your own hands. I wouldn't say it's a mainstream response, but I think right-wing fringe elements owe their heritage to the extremists who came out of the Civil War.

This book took four years for you to write. Since publication a year ago, your life has changed how?

I've gone from a guy writing in a New York City apartment to a guy with an audience and something to say about American history -- this unexpected side of American history. Whether the audience is academic or popular, it's been gratifying, terrific.

E-mail: gill@memphisflyer.com

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