The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The way in which Americans choose their heroes and create their myths is a curious process which seems to draw more or less equally from the dark side and the bright side of the human spirit. A case in point is Jesse James, a vicious robber and killer who was widely admired by his contemporaries as a sort of Robin Hood figure and who was immortalized after his death in songs, tales, books, and films. The well-known folk song expresses the prevailing attitude quite correctly and quite tersely: “But that dirty little coward that shot Mister Howard, he laid poor Jesse in his grave.” Mister Howard was an alias which was often used by Jesse James, and “that dirty little coward” was, of course, Robert Ford. The story contained in the song is the skeleton of this excellent novel. It is a story that has often been told; the quality of the novel lies in Ron Hansen’s fleshing out of the familiar tale.
Hansen’s Jesse James is a complex, contradictory, enigmatic figure. Early in the novel, the reader is told that Jessepracticed out-of-the-body travel, precognition, sorcery . . . sucked raw egg yolks out of their shells and ate grass when sick, like a dog . . . was a faulty judge of character, a prevaricator, a child at heart . . . was persistently vexed by insomnia and therefore experimented with a vast number of soporifics . . . could intimidate like King Henry the Eighth . . . could be reckless or serene, rational or lunatic, from one minute to the next . . . regretted neither his robberies nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to, but he would brood about his slanders and slights, his callow need for attention, his overweening vaingloriousness, and he was excessively genteel and polite in order to disguise what he thought was vulgar, primitive and depraved in his origins.
Furthermore, Jesse is depicted as faithful to his rather mousy wife, Zee, and as a rather fastidious person in sexual matters. Before their marriage, he asks Zee if he can be “liberal” with her, and upon being refused he becomes embarrassed and does not persist. Years later, when Robert Ford passes on to Jesse a story suggesting that Jesse would take advantage of female robbery victims, he is offended.
Despite the intriguing catalog of Jesse’s characteristics, traits, quirks, and eccentricities with which the reader is provided, two facets of Jesse James are not so clearly spelled out: his reasons for pursuing a life of thievery and murder, and the strange, hypnotic effect which he seemed to have on his followers and on the public who followed his exploits from a distance. The narrator asserts that “rooms seemed hotter when [Jesse] was in them, rains fell straighter, clocks slowed, sounds were amplified.” Although Hansen sketches in the background of bitterness and violence from the Civil War that preceded Jesse’s life of crime, the reader is largely left to puzzle out for himself the James enigma. This is an intelligent decision by Hansen. A glib psychological explanation of Jesse’s motives would trivialize the character. Furthermore, too much explanation of his effect on others would constitute mythmaking, something Hansen mostly avoids. Show, do not tell, states the old narrative rule, and Hansen wisely obeys.
What of the antagonist, Robert Ford, “the dirty little coward”? In this book, Ford is, in fact, treated rather nicely. The reader first meets him in an encounter with Frank James while the James Gang is busy preparing for a train robbery. Frank is unimpressed: “He looked to Frank like a simp and a snickerer, the sort to tantalize leashed dogs.” Despite Frank’s misgivings, Ford manages to ingratiate himself with Jesse, with Ford serving as court jester and sycophant, listening avidly to Jesse’s stories, laughing at Jesse’s jokes, and telling stories himself about the deeds of the gang. This, however, is not all there is to Robert Ford: “I’m afraid of being forgotten. . . . I’m afraid I’ll end up living a life like everyone else’s and me being Bob Ford won’t matter one way or the other,” he tells Jesse shortly before the assassination. Still more revealing is Ford’s comment to a law officer when he decides to betray Jesse for reward money:I’ve been a nobody all my life. I was the baby; I was the one people picked on, the one they made promises to that they never kept. And ever since I can recall it, Jesse James has been big as a tree. I’m prepared for this, Jim. And I’m going to accomplish it. I know I won’t get but this one opportunity and you can bet your life I’m not going to spoil it.
Thus, Ford moves from wimp to Judas to assassin, and still later one step...
(The entire section is 1903 words.)