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Outlaws: Jesse James and Josey Wales

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The following essay originally appeared here, a companion page to this blog.

There was an interesting piece on NPR’s On the Media last week about the value of good Public Relations and Jesse James. The guest was T.J. Stiles, author of a new biography of James called Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.

The show was primarily about how James was able to manipulate contemporary media into painting a favorable portrait of him as a kind of heroic resistor of the “radical Republican administration in Washington”; the former Unionists in other words. This, in Missouri, torn apart along factional lines, where there was no clean division between Confederate and Union sympathies. James, with the help of newspaper editors such as John Edwards, was cast in a political role, as Confederate guerilla, a bushwhacker, enemy of Grant and the corrupt Union. He “was polarizing and dividing the people in his own community…rallying one element of this bitterly divided community against another” under a banner of noble resistance, a resistance that was, ultimately, a media fabrication. Stiles argues that in actuality, James was a barbarous outlaw. A media-savvy outlaw who would at times leave press releases at the site of his crimes. His ‘good works’ were largely a fiction, the mantle of a Robin Hood myth.

Following the Northfield, Minnesota robbery of 1876, and a three year semi-retirement, they picked up where they left off in 1879 robbing trains – but Missouri had changed. Culturally, the Confederates had won the war of reconstruction in Missouri; both U.S. senators and Missouri congressmen were former Confederates. The mythologized image of James as noble rebel had lost its nobility. Jesse was later assassinated by one of his own men, in a conspiracy with the governor of Missouri that shocked Missourians. The newspapers lashed the state government for it and public shock gave way to sympathy, leading to the acquittal of Frank. Retrospectively, this softening of the facts surrounding the life of Jesse “cleared the way for Jesse James’s second act in the media — the life of the completely unpolitical man who was the defender of the small farmer against the rapacious railroads — a role he had never played during his life” said Stiles.

Neither role reflected a true sense of mission, and it’s an interesting revaluation of James. Stripped of the media-generated image, he was no more than a daring and audacious – even psychotic – criminal.

Contrast James with the fictional character of Josey Wales, in Clint Eastwood’s under-appreciated western from 1976, The Outlaw Josey Wales. In it, Eastwood plays Wales, a peaceful farmer in Missouri whose family is murdered and his home burned by Union renegades at the close of the Civil War. His life in ashes, Wales polishes his guns, practices his shooting and embarks on a mission to avenge the crimes. Abjuring a life of the apolitical homesteader, he fights the Union loyalists, right through the surrender of the Confederacy. He becomes, legally, an outlaw.

Throughout the film Wales’ motives are clear: the viewer understands that this is an outlaw whose motives are rooted in a notion of justice. He does not fight for property or personal gain, nor does he camouflage his fight in self-aggrandizing terms. Wales becomes precisely what James was not: a man driven by an instinctual notion of right and wrong, fighting to avenge an unassailably atrocious deed. It is only circumstantially that he is fighting to defend the Confederacy’s abstract value of independence from a corrupt Union. It is ironic that Wales ends up politicized by virtue of his mission, by the mere engagement with his quest. He is transformed from a law-abiding quiet man to an outlaw, an outlaw in the service of a particular justice. For Wales, ultimately, this justice serves his own aggrieved self, and it is only by association that it may serve some external, political definition of justice. That it does in fact serve the Confederacy is a secondary consideration, one that has little bearing on our perception of Wales as a character, but does distinguish him still more from James’ ultimately shallow engagement with politics as a claimed motive. We sympathize with Wales regardless of what we know the values of the Confederacy to be. James supporters in post-war Missouri sympathized with James because of the values of the Confederacy. In the film, political justice and how it’s perceived has everything to do with how Wales’ contemporaries in Missouri might have viewed his actions and not with the motives of the character himself. He is politicized despite himself. His war is personal, and it is certainly not shaped for public consumption via the media. This is underscored towards the end of the film when he takes up with a group of settlers and attempts to regenerate some semblance of his lost life. The message is clear: Wales is not a political agent, nor is he a professional rebel.

Josey Wales, and not Jesse James, is the true, if fictional, personification of the James myth. Wales embodies what James attempted to fabricate for himself: an image of the noble rebel, fighting the good fight, a kind of latter-day Robin Hood. James’ image is a falsehood while Wales’ image is an authentic one. It is the honest fulfillment of what Stiles calls “a need that people have, that American culture has, for a rebel – for someone who resists the powers that be…this heroic, defiant figure.” Even in the model of Robin Hood, Wales wins the day, lending his expertise and the still-warm albeit deeply submerged embers of his heart to this band of settlers; he is, in effect, giving to the poor. For James–Stiles argues–giving to the poor largely amounted to gambling heavily, “and at best [paying] handsomely when he stopped at a farm house anonymously for a…night’s rest and for a meal; that’s about as close as he came to ever giving money to the poor.”

For this alone, for providing what I would suggest is an authentic depiction of the myth of the heroic rebel, The Outlaw Josey Wales is worth revisiting.

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About Pieter K

  • Eric Olsen

    Very interesting and well-written. Was it Freudian that you listed the title of the book as “Last Rebel of the Cold War”?

  • pk

    Thanks Eric.

    Ummm…that was a really dumb mistake; nothing Freudian at all! I’d copied and pasted the title directly from WNYC/On the Media site (it’s still there). The weird thing is, they continue to refer to the Civil War as the Cold War in the transcript.

    I’m a dumb-ass for not catching that. Thanks!

  • Eric Olsen

    I wouldn’t go that far, I just thought it was funny. I guess NPR has the Freudian issue.