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A Portrait of an Outlaw as a Young Man:
A Review of The Jesse James Scrapbook
by George Jansen
Reviewed by Frank Mundo .
Historically, the American character is one of moral, political and religious paradox. Distinguished, revolutionary, and brilliant, the American created the modern model of democracy by enslaving one entire race of people and nearly committing genocide upon another. Oh, and he left his wife at home while he did it. Enlightened, spiritual, and pious, the American sought freedom from religious persecution, and then he went out lynching and witch hunting those who were different —and brought his wife along while he did it. Discriminate, just, and moral, the American trusted the will of the people to elect its leaders by ignoring more than half of its population, including his wife, who left at home while he did it. From Thomas Jefferson to William Jefferson Clinton, the American character, magnanimous and meretricious, is consistently linked to a dual struggle with morality, politics or religion.
This April, 2004, however, marks the 123rd anniversary of the murder of Mr. Tom Howard of St. Joseph, Missouri, the archetype of this American moral paradox. And one doesn't need to study history to know that Mr. Howard (AKA Jesse James) is still, all these years later, one of the most famous American characters who has ever lived. But, for history buffs, such as George Jansen, author of The Jesse James Scrapbook, Jesse James is so much more. Not only an icon of American paradox, James is a symbol of "the haunted stillness" of a post Civil War America, scarred for life by "that terrible conflict," the bloodiest battle ever experienced on American soil. For others like Jansen, Jesse James is a type of figure who , if nothing else, might help reconcile, not the "the terrible conflict" itself, but the ugly scar it left behind. James, immoral certainly, represents the rebellious nature of the moral American character who, in most cases, eventually sees (even a century later) the most manifest errors of his way. In this way, Jesse James is mirror who exposes, with guns in each hand, both sides of our troubled nature.
The Jesse James Scrapbook is not a historical study of Jesse James; it's a novel which examines the James legend through the firsthand historical voice of the press and people of America fictionally recreated by Jansen (based, however, on "actual" historical documents). If history is told by the winners, then legend must be the response of the losers —and, boy, do they ever respond when it comes to Jesse James.
Jansen's Scrapbook is ostensibly a collection of interviews, letters, newspaper articles and even excerpts from an outlaw's criminal confession: the winners and the losers (but mostly the losers). These documents are first collected by a precocious 12 year old named Tom Gardner in 1906, forgotten about for years, and are then reexamined in 1935 by an older and wiser Gardner, a writer for the government's W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration, an endlessly fascinating organization created by the government during the Depression to keep artists busy and working). The majority of the Scrapbook is made up of interviews which detail the various stages of the Jesse James legend, his youth, his war and his death. A schoolteacher, farmers, a Pinkerton Detective, a commercial fisherman, saloon keepers, a reporter, Confederate Cavalrymen, a school caretaker and even outlaws and informers ("everyone [still alive] who ever knew or saw or was robbed by Jesse" ) all team up to aid in the The Jesse James Scrapbook, the "life work" of Tom Gardner. And although a specific ugliness is missing in the twang of some of these re-created American voices, George Jansen has successfully executed a provocative and entertaining work of fiction worthy of the true legend himself.