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Insurgent Son: Jesse James and the Crucible of American Character
Tuesday, 25 December 2007 12:38
by Chris Floyd

Last winter, I flew across the ocean back to Tennessee, after my oldest brother died. During this visit, I had with me a book I'd long meant to read but had never gotten around to. It was Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, by T.J. Stiles.

To call this work a "biography" risks misrepresenting the depth and scope of the illumination it provides. It is a masterpiece of historical reconstruction. By the time I had finished reading it, during long, empty nights after days filled with the business and busyness of death, I felt I had come to a new understanding of American reality: of the nation's history, of many of the deep-running currents in American society, and of our politics, past and present. I also felt – although this was incidental – that I had gained new insights into Iraq as well, into some of the dynamics at work in the sectarian conflicts there, which we like to pretend have largely to do with strange and primitive elements in Muslim and Arabic culture, with no connection to us.

Anyone who wants to examine one of the primary crucibles of the American character will find Stiles' work indispensable. He is also a marvelous writer, evoking a living world from the long-vanished past with understated but highly effective artistry. To evoke the old book-review cliché, if you read one book on American history in the coming year, make sure it is Stiles' book on the life and times – especially the times – of Jesse James. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I may return to the book at some point, if time permits. Meanwhile, Stiles provides a good overview of the work in his prologue:
Some of the central questions and conflicts in American history defined [Jesse James'] existence: the fight over slavery and abolitionism, the great catastrophe of the Civil War, the revolution of freedom represented by emancipation and Reconstruction, the spread of railroads and industrialization, and the first signs of a corporate economy. The social and political fire fueled by all these things burned at a white heat in Jesse Jame's homeland of Western Missouri – a border state...sharing traits of the industrial Northeast, the family-farm Northwest, and the slave-driving South. Here, every political issue was personal, every conflict real and concrete, ever dispute bitter....

Jesse James was not an inarticulate avenger for the poor; his popularity was driven by politics – politics based on wartime allegiance – and was rooted among former Confederates. Even his attacks on unpopular economic targets, the banks and the railroads, turn out on closer inspection to have had political resonances. He was, in fact, a major force in the attempt to create a Confederate identity for Missouri, a cultural and political offensive waged by the defeated rebels to undo the triumph of the radical Republicans in the Civil War. His robberies, his murders, his letters to the newspapers, his starring role in [newspaper] columns all played a part in the Confederate effort to achieve wartime goals by political means (to use Christopher Phillip's neat reversal of Clausewitz's dictum.) Had Jesse James existed a century later, he would have been called a terrorist...

This is, at bottom, a story of how Americans have hated Americans, how Americans have killed Americans, how both winners and loser refused to forget or forgive. It is a story of the Civil War and what it left unsettled – the open-ended consequences that still shape our lives. It is a story of murder, atrocity and terrorism, of the hunger for revenge, of struggles for power and freedom and the definition of freedom. The darker angels of our nature beat their wings throughout this book, for they often guided the life of, the hunt for, and the celebration of Jesse Woodson James.
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