Okay, so it's been two months since I read these books, but I've been thinking about Jesse James and outlaws in general a lot and haven't had time to write the post I wanted to until now. (Well I don't entirely have time now, but I'm just going to do it!)
So I was really excited about the movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and I found out that it was based on a novel by Ron Hansen. I realized that I didn't know much about Jesse James at all, and I wanted some historical perspective before seeing the movie. I wanted to read the book, too. So I perused various biographies online and settled on Jesse James Was His Name: Or, Fact and Fiction concerning the Careers of the Notorious James Brothers of Missouri by William A. Settle, Jr. After reading that, I read Hansen's book and saw the film (thank heavens I live in Austin, one of the very select cities where it opened). I suppose Hansen's book is the only thing relevant to this community, but I'm going to write about everything anyway.
Jesse James Was His Name: Or, Fact and Fiction concerning the Careers of the Notorious James Brothers of Missouri by William A. Settle, Jr.
This seemed relatively scholarly, in that sources were cited and any speculation was clearly identified as such. I was amazed at how little was actually verified about Jesse's life. There is absolutely no physical evidence that Jesse robbed the banks and trains of which he was accused (mainly because family members often provided alibis and the crimes occurred before surveillance technology was available). There is also no evidence that Jesse gave away his shadily acquired money to the less fortunate. If Jesse had been captured by legitimate law enforcement personnel, I doubt his legend would exist as it does now. The fact that he was shot while unarmed by a hired assassin (which is essentially what Bob Ford was) made him a sympathetic character, despite his evil deeds. Also, most of his crimes were committed in a relatively small area, and people in the East were free to fantasize about the heroic character and disseminate misinformation. I guess everybody loves a hero and it doesn't much matter if the heroic acts are true or not.
I learned quite a bit from reading this, especially about the situation in Missouri during and immediately after the Civil War. Settle presents the war there as being essentially fought with guerilla tactics and brutalities committed against citizens not involved in the fighting. Most of the information I've read about the Civil War concerns the combat in the East, and I had no idea what the state of affairs on the Western front was like. This does not excuse Jesse or Frank James, the Younger boys (whose family probably got put through the ringer the worst), or any of the other outlaws of their horrible actions, but it does provide more of a context.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen
Hansen provides a plausible scenario for Bob Ford's relationship with Jesse James and the events leading up to his death. Jesse's early career as a robber with his brother Frank the Younger brothers is not depicted. Instead, Frank's last heist with the new gang is the starting point and the Ford boys' role in the gang is the focus. I liked that Jesse was not portrayed as a selfless hero (because he wasn't). Instead, he had flaws, and in particular I thought that his treatment of his wife Zee was awful. He didn't beat her, but he neglected her and didn't really consider her feelings or how his actions would affect her. This wasn't really played up in the film version, which instead showed them as devoted to one another. Nor was Bob Ford an innocent who was caught up in a big plot to bring Jesse down. It was clear that he was teased and not generally taken seriously (and had an unhealthy obsession with Jesse), but his lust for greatness and recognition was rather repulsive and couldn't be forgiven despite his past circumstances.
What I didn't like about the book was that the tone seemed to switch between a novel and a work of non-fiction. It was largely historical fiction, but the occasional turn of phrase made it seem like the information being presented was the truth. Having just read a work of non-fiction about the James brothers, I didn't appreciate this. There were some beautiful passages (which translated very well to the screen), but I thought there were consistency issues and as a whole the book wasn't all that well written. For me, this stylistic flaw was overcome by the compelling story.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford film
As far as film adaptations go, this one is excellent. I was hesitant about how it would be, since I had some issues with the book, but I actually like the movie better. (SHOCKING!) Somehow the narration (which was nearly verbatim from the text) worked really well in the film. The casting was excellent and both Brad Pitt and (especially) Casey Affleck were fantastic. There were, of course, some changes from the book, but nothing major and as a film it was very impressive. It wasn't a quick-paced film, but it was beautifully done with gorgeous cinematography and music. When it comes out on DVD, I will definitely be buying it.
Jesse James in music
I had gotten Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions a while ago and I absolutely love it. There is a song entitled Jesse James, which of course glorifies him (and it's also included in Settle's book). I started wondering how many other songs there were about Jesse James and outlaws in general, so I turned to my friend finetune.com. I made an Outlaws playlist and it has over 70 tracks. Of course, there are multiple versions of some songs, but the amount of music out there about outlaws (predominantly Jesse James and Billy the Kid) is rather astounding to me! There are even entire concept albums dedicated to Jesse James. I think my favorite find is Warren Zevon's Frank and Jesse James from his self-titled album. In keeping with the information put forth in Settle's book, nearly all of the songs depict Jesse James as a persecuted Confederate who selflessly stole from the rich and/or the Union and gave to those down on their luck. Insane!