Sunday, November 9, 2008
Larry McMurty: Author/Jean Gabin Fan
As I mention in my book WORLD'S COOLEST MOVIE STAR: THE COMPLETE 95 FILMS (AND LEGEND) OF JEAN GABIN, Gabin, besides being a great actor, was also a farmer. Watch how McMurtry leads into a review of a book about Jesse James with a mention of Gabin!
(Reprinted from The New Republic, 10/14/02)!
Larry McMurtry, The New Republic,
by Larry McMurtry
Peasant revolts are usually bloodier than they are funny, but a funny one occurred in Normandy in 1972, when seven hundred peasants woke up the French actor Jean Gabin to complain that he was hogging too much land—some six hundred acres at the time. In vain did Jean Gabin—once more or less the face of France—argue that he had earned his acreage; after a vigorous debate he agreed to lend half of it. It was lucky for Gabin that he got too big for his britches in Normandy rather than in Missouri, and in 1972 rather than 1872, the heyday of Jesse James. In Missouri there would have been no peasant council, just a bushwhacker with a pistol, possibly Jesse James himself.
I mention Jean Gabin's difficulty because T.J. Stiles, after carrying the reader scrupulously through Jesse James's violent, violent life, bumps in his concluding pages into Eric Hobsbawm's much-disputed theory of social banditry, a notion first elaborated in a book called Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels (1959). The concept resurfaces a decade later in a simpler Hobsbawm book called merely Bandits, in which Jesse James comes in for rather sketchy mention. In Hobsbawm's view, social bandits emerge from rural, pre-capitalist peasant societies, and they champion peasant needs in conflicts with the lord or the state. They can be understood only in the context of peasant society, and as proto-revolutionaries.
This theory may work well when applied to the haiduk of Bulgaria or other European rebel groups, but its application to American bandits caused several historians to raise their voices in protest. Hobsbawm evidently knows a good deal more about Bulgaria than he does about Missouri, then and now a hotbed of capitalist energies, where there were no peasants to champion, even had Jesse James been so inclined. There were certainly slaves who needed help—six at least in the James household; but Jesse was very far from wishing to champion slaves. In fact, he spent much of his short life trying to kill people who wanted to help the slaves. Even in the late 1870s, when the end was in sight and the violence that he had dispensed was less and less susceptible to any military interpretation, Jesse rushed with his brother Frank and the Younger boys into the catastrophe of the Northfield, Minnesota raid largely because he wanted to rob a bank in which the Union hero and strong civil rights proponent Adelbert Ames had his money.
As this patient biography makes clear, violence came to Jesse James more or less with his mother's milk. He was born in Clay County, Missouri, in an atmosphere of sectional conflict. His father died in the California gold rush; one stepfather was hanged in the backyard, although not fatally; his thrice-married mother Zerelda was no pacifist. From the late 1840s to the mid-1870s, Missouri was one of the most violent places in America, neighbor fighting neighbor, often over the issue of slavery. And Lee's surrender to Grant had no effect on this regional violence.
When Stiles, in his subtitle, calls Jesse James the "last rebel of the Civil War," he correctly defines the theme that ruled Jesse's life. From the age of fifteen on, he saw himself as a Confederate; he always looked South. In western Missouri, where he raided and fought, the Civil War was no mere four-year affair. Even as late as ten years after the surrender Jesse felt enraged because so few people were willing to go on fighting. His war was a partisan war, his life a partisan life, a matter of small skirmishes, twenty men here against another twenty men there. He never saw the devastation of Richmond or Atlanta, never felt the force of Grant or Sherman. The pro-slavers and the abolitionists had been fighting in Missouri since the 1840s, and the Emancipation Proclamation did not end it. The sociologist Lonnie Athens speaks of a process of "violentization" in which people see so much killing that finally only the ability to kill seems worthy of respect. My own Missouri-born grandparents lived not far from where James lived, in his time. After the conclusion of the Civil War they waited a few years, hoping that the killing would die down, but it didn't, and so they packed up and moved to Texas.
The face of the dust wrapper of Stiles's book—Jesse James at sixteen, during his first summer under arms—is the face of a true believer. What Jesse believed in was the Confederate cause, and he allowed no hint of moderation to temper his commitment, his anger, his thirst for revenge. In 1864, he rode with Bloody Bill Anderson and Archie Clement, men as vicious as any who ever fought on American soil. Bloody Bill seems to have been a small-scale American version of the terrible Baron Ungern-Sternberg, who ravished Mongolia and the Soviet Far East after World War I. Jesse James was with Anderson when the Centralia Massacre took place. Twenty-four unarmed Union soldiers were taken off a train, shot, and mutilated, with others treated just as badly in the town itself. Both Anderson and Clement frequently scalped their victims. In his eagerness to avenge Bloody Bill's death, once he had been ambushed, Jesse rushed into Gallatin, Missouri and promptly killed the wrong man, a pillar of the community named John W. Sheets. It was not the last time that he would kill inaccurately, and in haste.
From the mid-1860s on through the 1870s, Jesse had the help of a propagandist, a former Confederate major named John Newman Edwards, who switched to journalism and did all he could to promote Jesse as a kind of rebel knight errant. I own a dime novel, not written by Edwards, called Jesse James Knight Errant or the Rescue of the Queen of Prairies, in which Jesse performs many casual heroics in a place called the Vale of Pecos. Edwards's propagandizing consisted in the main of attempts to make Jesse's robbing and killing the legitimate responses of a patriot to Southern grievances. His efforts were greatly helped by a blundering Pinkerton raid in 1874; Jesse's mother lost an arm, but eight-year-old Archie, her pet child, lost his life. After 1875, however, it became increasingly difficult, even for a skilled propagandist such as Edwards, to put a convincing political spin on Jesse's raiding. Missourians, having endured some thirty years of Afghan-like violence, were tiring of it. Jesse's claims rang ever more hollow. His loyal younger brother Frank would rather have spent his time farming, and even Jesse's patient wife Zee hankered for a little peace.
In 1880 Thomas Crittenden, a Unionist Democrat, was elected governor of Missouri, and much of his inaugural address was a declaration of war on the outlaws. He persuaded the railroading interests that banditry was costing them money. Almost immediately Jesse played into the governor's hands by robbing a train and killing the conductor—one of his few killings that was probably accidental. The railroads immediately ponied up: Crittenden was soon able to offer a $10,000 reward for both Jesse James and Frank James, dead or alive. The Ford boys, Robert and Charley, saw their chance. They ingratiated themselves with Jesse, waiting patiently if nervously for a moment when he might be unarmed. It came on a hot day in April 1882, when Jesse threw off his coat, vest, and gun belt and stepped up on a chair to dust a picture. Bob Ford immediately killed him with a shot to the head.
Bandit biography has always been a taxing genre, in which every assertion is sure to draw many challenges. How much did Henry Fielding get right when he wrote his book about the highwayman Jonathan Wild? Newspapers always devote lavish coverage to the exploits of bandits, but how much bandit journalism is really accurate? When gun battles happen, legend encrusts the corpses before they are even cold. Who can say with absolute precision what was the sequence of events in the shootout between the Earps and the Clantons at the O.K. Corral? Inevitably there will be pretenders, claimants, even denials that the outlaws are really dead. More than a century after Bob Ford shot Jesse James off that chair, DNA testing confirmed his death— but there were some who still believed that he had died some years earlier, in Denton County, Texas. Butch Cassidy might have ended his days in Spokane, Washington, rather than in Bolivia; the Sundance Kid may have made it back to Idaho. Some citizens of Hico, Texas believe that Billy the Kid fooled Pat Garrett and enjoyed a long dotage in their community. Meanwhile Billy's headstone, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, has been stolen at least twice.
Gun battles and robberies are often disorderly affairs: it is not easy for even a careful historian to determine who shot whom. Stiles is rightly cautious on this score. James wrote a famous letter to the Kansas City Times on a matter close to his heart: uncooperative bank employees. "A man who's a d....d enough fool to refuse to open a safe or a vault when covered with a pistol ought to die," he reasons; and he goes on to expand on those sentiments. Does this allow us to conclude that it was Jesse who killed the honest but uncooperative banker Joseph Heywood in Northfield, Minnesota? I feel sure that it was Jesse, but "almost certainly" is as far as Stiles will go—and either conclusion will probably cause this magazine to receive impassioned letters defending the opposite view.
In the hierarchy of American outlaws—if one judges solely on the extent of their bibliographies—Billy the Kid is still far ahead of Jesse James. Billy died without knowing who killed him and slid right into myth. Jesse's immense popularity in his native place—a place with a good deal more social and political density than Billy's New Mexico—owed much of its potency to the intense regional resentment of Yankee power. But Jesse James was no Robin Hood; nor was he even nice. Yet he certainly was defiant, and in the Missouri of his day, defiance rocked.