Stiles, T(imothy) J(udd) 1964–
STILES, T(imothy) J(udd) 1964–
PERSONAL: Born July 29, 1964, in St. Cloud, MN; son of Clifford Dillon (a physician) and Carol Stiles. Education: Carleton College, B.A. (with distinction), 1986; Columbia University, M.A., 1988, M.Phil., 1991. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Shotokan karate, travel, hiking, sculpture, politics.
CAREER: Historian and writer.
MEMBER: Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, Authors Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: American Library Association Notable Book designation, one of New York Public Library's Books to Remember, Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, all 2002, Ambassador Book Award, and Peter Seabore Award for Civil War Scholarship, both 2003, all for Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.
(Editor) The Citizen's Handbook: Essential Documents and Speeches from American History, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1993.
Jesse James, introductory essay by Vito Perrone, Chelsea House Publishers (New York, NY), 1994.
(Editor) Civil War Commanders, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1995.
(Editor) Warriors and Pioneers, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1996.
(Editor) Robber Barons and Radicals, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor) The Colonizers, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor) Founding Fathers, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1999.
Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to newspapers and Smithsonian magazine.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
SIDELIGHTS: T. J. Stiles once told CA: "I write history. I have been drawn to this field since I was very young, though its attraction has changed several times over the years. When I first began reading, I devoured history because of the stories—stories that had an extra kick because they were real (more or less). As I advanced through high school and into college, I was drawn, not to narrative, but to knowledge. The research, the theories, the uncovering of evidence and processes and development and social, political, and economic change—these things fascinated me. As I continued into graduate school, however, I despaired at the jargon-laden, social science-weighted world of academic studies. I asked myself why I was interested in history at all.
"In answering the question, I returned to the beginning: the stories. The narrative seems to occupy a deep place in the mind. When we explain something to ourselves, we prefer to couch the information or explanation in a tale. Take the Civil War, for example. Americans are fascinated with it. Why? The first reason is that it forms a compelling narrative of a clear conflict, with colorful protagonists and climactic moments of resolution. The second reason is its meaning. The Civil War speaks to Americans about the meaning of America. The quality and clarity of the story bring out underlying themes of our nation's character and direction.
"Professional history is rich with facts and theories—the result of countless studies and decades of research—but the ability to express that information in terms of narrative seems to be fading. Here and there, a really fine writer has rescued the narrative history by applying the knowledge uncovered in academic studies to the stories that the public craves. The Civil War is actually one of the most fortunate fields in this respect. Some biographers, too, have revived the literary craft that once was so central to the historian's work. Their example is what I choose to follow.
"So, after throwing up my hands in despair, I have returned to history. When I write, I try to tell a good (and accurate) story, both for its own sake and as a means of drawing out the underlying meaning, the themes that explain to us how we became what we now are."
For his first full-length biography, Stiles chose a historic and controversial American. In Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, the author "masterfully strips [his subject] bare," according to an Economist reviewer. A bank robber during the Reconstruction era, James led a gang that included his older brother, Frank. While there was no doubt that James stole money and murdered bystanders, he had nonetheless gone down in history as a Robin Hood-type flawed hero; according to legend, he distributed the stolen funds to the poverty-stricken citizens of James's native Missouri.
In Stiles's reading of his subject's life, James was no hero. Indeed, the bank robber and others like him were "[nineteenth-century] rural gangsters," as Roger Miller noted in the Denver Post. As important, Miller continued, Stiles "sees James as a significant political figure and his gang as terrorists in the cause of the South." Growing up, the James brothers witnessed how the Civil War tore apart Missouri, a North-South border state that saw some of the most virulent battles of the conflict and left countless people dead or destitute. At sixteen, James joined Confederate guerilla leader "Bloody" Bill Anderson, whose posse was known for its particularly gruesome practices, such as scalping their victims.
After the war, the James brothers, along with Cole Younger, founded a gang of "bushwhackers" that staged bank and train robberies across the frontier in a path that ranged from Minnesota to Alabama. Proclaiming his affinity for the South, James positioned himself as an activist; a self-promoter, he even left press releases at the site of some of his robberies. Many newspapers took the bait, portraying James as a Confederate hero. But Stiles finds no evidence that any of the stolen money was distributed to the poor.
The gang's most infamous raid took place on September 7, 1876, when an ill-fated attempt to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota, left most of the James-Younger gang dead or wounded. Frank and Jesse escaped, but the botched raid proved the latter's undoing. By 1879 former Confederates had found places in Congress; as the author told Brooke Gladstone in an On the Media radio interview, "Jesse James was undone by his victory, and there was no more place for him. So he stopped writing letters to the press. There ceased to be so many editorials in support of him. All the old newspapers that had once supported him now depicted him as simply a criminal who'd outlived his usefulness."
Jesse James was shot to death for the reward money by a fellow gangster, Bob Ford, on April 3, 1882. The robber's life was told and retold in dime novels, news tabloids, and, later, such films as The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid and The Long Riders.
In a Salon.com review of Jesse James, Allen Barra called the work "perhaps the finest book ever written about this American legend." Barra went on to cite Stiles for eschewing "the usual trappings of the outlaw-buff variety; there are no tedious and irrelevant genealogical trees, no reliance on 'Uncle Ned'-style history (as in 'My Uncle Ned knew the real story…'), and no irritating insistence on reinterpreting the entire saga in the light of new information that's unavailable to the public." Miller held a similar view, calling Jesse James "a neat short course in Civil War and Reconstruction politics, as well as a vivid portrait of a bloody, self-obsessed, attention-craving hoodlum willing to wreak havoc in furthering his own myth of a life doomed to crime."
Discussing James's image with Gladstone, Stiles said: "There's a question of a need that people have, that American culture has, for a rebel—for someone who resists the powers that be, and so we have this image of Jesse as this heroic, defiant figure and yet we've forgotten what he was defying!" James, he added, "was a hero to former slaveholders in the South. He was defiant against people who wished to bring African-Americans into politics for the first time…. His role in popular culture and in America's historical imagination is only possible because we've forgotten the politics."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, June 15, 2002, review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, p. 77.
Booklist, March 1, 1998, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Colonizers, p. 1098; August, 2002, Jay Freeman, review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, p. 1899.
Contemporary Review, May, 2003, review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, p. 315.
Denver Post, September 22, 2002, Roger Miller, review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.
Economist (U.S.), October 5, 2002, "A Confederate Robber," review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2002, review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, p. 868.
Library Journal, July, 2002, Charles Cowling, review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, p. 90.
Publishers Weekly, June 24, 2002, review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, p. 46.
Wilson Quarterly, autumn, 2002, Max McCoy, review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, p. 118.
Observer Online (London, England), http://www.observer.co.uk/ (December 29, 2002), Roy Hattersley, review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.
On the Media Web site, http://www.wnyc.org/ (November 12, 2002), Brooke Gladstone, author interview.
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (October 15, 2002), Allen Barra, review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.
Star Tribune Online, http://www.startribune.com/ (September 22, 2002), Roger Miller, review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.
T. J. Stiles Official Web site, http://www.tjstiles.com (August 29, 2005).