Portrait of a Popular American Badman : Jesse James
Stephenson, Ronald R.
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Jesse James was an outlaw. He was the first and most notorious of that type of horseback desperado that has become identified with the Old West. Jesse James robbed banks, waylaid stagecoaches and shot people. Oddly enough, however, Jesse is not considered a blot on our history, but instead has become one of our legends. This is a remarkable contradiction, but it can be explained. Jesse James' popular public image and appeal was established as the result of the massive exposure his exploits were given in the various popular forms that arose in the last fourth of the nineteenth century--popular histories, dime novels, thick book novels, gazettes and tabloids. These forms declined and disappeared in the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century, but the image that they had created lived on and were translated and perpetuated in one of the most influential of our own popular forms: the movies. The image that was established in those early forms of popular literature has become a permanent American legend. Although Jesse James was a real bandit, our image of him and his legend is, to a great extent, the product of popular fiction. The real Jesse James of history has become an indistinguishable blur in the shadow of a manufactured and comfortable legend. This study is concerned with showing the influence popular forms of literature had in shaping and establishing this legend. In order to accomplish this, several things have been included in this thesis. The Jesse of history is contrasted to the Jesse of folklore and fiction. The various types of nineteenth century popular literature and their individual types of treatments of Jesse, as well as the interrelationships of the various forms, are shown and explained. The influence these earlier forms have had on Jesse's portrayal in the movies is also demonstrated. Primary sources were used extensively in this study. Dime novels, thick book novels, popular histories, gazettes, tabloids and films about Jesse James make up the bulk of the primary material used. In addition, letters, diaries and newspapers of Jesse's era were perused, and important sites in Jesse's life were visited. Secondary sources used include histories about Jesse's life and the era he lived in, sociological and psychological studies on the mistique of the West, and studies of Western folklore.