Thursday, September 13, 2007

The real Jesse James

Your Dust to Dust-related news of the week:

I can't believe I live this close to Northfield and have never been to Defeat of Jesse James Days. It was last weekend though and I needed a break after spending the previous two weekends at the Minnesota State Fair and the Renaissance Festival. At least Rough Draft has the report on DJJD to console me. I'll have to plan better for next year though.

Related to that, Travel & Leisure has a list of other places you can go visit in the footsteps of Jesse James.

A couple of other articles on Jesse went up this week thanks to the movie. Since the movie premiered Brad Pitt's been talking about the link between the events of Jesse's life and the celebrity-worship that still goes on today. The Assassination of Jesse James is mostly about that and how the phenomenon turned deadly for Jesse. The Washington Post covers that part of the story pretty well and also talks about how Jesse's legend -- even during his lifetime -- was exaggerated by the dime novels of the day. Not only was he made famous; his exploits were glamorized to the point that he became known as a Robin Hood figure. I mean, he was played by Roy freakin' Rogers, for crying out loud.

But, as U.S. News and World Report points out, "James himself would have considered this notion a great joke. He more likely would have agreed with a famous bandit of a later generation, Willie Sutton. When someone asked Sutton why he robbed banks, he supposedly replied: 'Because that's where the money is.'"

The article goes on to analyze Jesse's motives in depth and connects them to the Civil War: "These guerrillas were anything but the poor farmers of folklore. Many of them (like James) came from families that were three times more likely to own slaves and possessed twice as much wealth as the average Missouri family. James fought during the war against emancipation and after the war against the Republican Party that freed and enfranchised the slaves. Many of the banks and express companies struck by the James gang were owned by individuals or groups associated with the Republican Party. Like the Ku Klux Klan in former Confederate states, the James gang did its best to undermine the new order ushered in by Northern victory in the Civil War."

That's something that Alex Ness and I latched onto in the backstory for Dust to Dust. Our Jesse is no hero. He's not even an anti-hero. He's a ruthless bigot who's grown more dangerous with age. He may be old, but he's more than a match for poor Machine Gun Kelly (another man whose legend was distorted by the media of his day) who makes the mistake of wandering into Jesse's town to set up a still with a Black man in his gang.

Anyway, Jesse's celebrity is interesting and all, but more than anything else, it's this idea of him as a Southern patriot that I'm most curious to see if the movie portrays.

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