Walking in America with Robert Ford and Jesse James
Walking is something that most of us take for granted. We might get up and walk across a room, or we might walk across town, and not much thought is given to it. We spend probably a year or so of our lives learning how to manage walking. We struggle with balance, and then basically manage that. Then we struggle with direction and endurance, and…basically manage that for our purposes on a 2-dimensional plane. We don’t have to think much to take a literal walk. Flying is a bit more complex. Without the orienting demands of the Earth attached to our feet, we need to focus a bit more mental energy on up, down, left, right, forward, and backward. In a 3-dimensional space of flying, all of those directions can be combined in aviation in what are known as “roll pitch and yaw”. It is a bit more complex. It tends to be more complex than it is in our imagination before trying it, but it has permanent moorings which make all questions and problems ultimately solvable. So much for literal travel.
Now, consider walking through life. What is it like walking through America? What is America? As far as I can tell, it is something in the process of becoming. It certainly isn’t what we learned as its definition when we are first taught. It isn’t what it is said to be, only in part, because it is still becoming. From experience with walking in America, part of it seems to be a bit of not where it is going, or where it is supposed to be. Back in 1982, Neil Peart wrote about America. He called it “New World Man”.
“…He’s got a problem with his power
With weapons on patrol
He’s got to walk a fine line
And keep his self control…”
Since inception, America set a course to walk an intentional path. Thomas Jefferson stated our intended direction.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
etc. It is more observation than criticism when I say, after “self-evident”, America lost its orientation. The balance required while walking is a challenge for an infant. Coordination and endurance develop over time and one’s gait becomes more regular and controlled. Proficiency grows with strength and power. But a small error in orientation can lead to being significantly off course.
“…[A]ll men are created equal…”
When Walt Whitman wrote about America in the 19th century, we were teaching ourselves about an America which we were telling ourselves was still on course. Whitman wrote:
“I hear America singing the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing as it should be
Blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat,
The deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench,
The hatter singing as he stands,
The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way,
The morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or the young wife
At work, or the young girl sewing or washing
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day,-at night the party of
Young fellows, robust and friendly,
Singing with open mouths their melodious songs.”
I can’t walk in America in the 19th century. I can only read what the poets have written about it, and what the historians have written about it. And I can think about it.
Jesse James was an American bank robber, train robber, and guerrilla warrior. The term “guerrilla war” wasn’t coined until some time later, but the principles had been employed in various places for centuries. Guerrilla war is an interesting core sample in the analysis of a free land. This strategy would only arise under a massive power imbalance, or pure criminality. In the case of Jesse James, both appear to be present.
Jesse James is just one person, and one person does not America make, but we can learn a lot about America by looking at Jesse James, and the America that gave rise to him and embraced him. For starters, I probably don’t need to make you familiar with the name. Most people have heard of James, and most have heard of people named Jesse. Jame’s fame is partly responsible for the one time popularity of the name. Many people were named after him at one time. Jesse Woodson James was also objectively a horrible human being. Before he was a bank robber, James was a Confederate soldier. During the Civl War, James was a “bushwhacker”, which was a form of guerrilla warrior.
James becomes more interesting for me, and America’s love of him, in the period after the Civil War. That is when he began his criminal career. After the Civil War, something I didn’t know until fairly recently, many Confederates traveled around and formed gangs to do what the James gang did. The first question is, what is all that about? We learn about the historical period, in part, by reading Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Lincoln concluded with the following.
“…With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his children to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
America, at that time, was in the process of beginning. And without questioning the sincerity of Jefferson’s words versus Lincoln’s, Lincoln, at least, demonstrates an awareness of what America was at that moment. Jefferson, in his ode to freedom, did not address slavery. Was that ignorance or intent? That is a complex question. By comparison, Lincoln certainly appears to be taking into account a more realistic assessment of what America was at the time, as he suggests a course of what America would need to become.
And at the time Lincoln was singing that song of America, Jesse James was playing a different tune. And judging from James’s popularity, many Americans were listening to a different tune. And the thing about Jesse James’s criminal life that is most interesting to me is viewing it through the prism of Robert Ford, a member of James’s gang who ultimately killed James, and achieved more infamy next to James’s fame. Ford earned a bounty for killing James, and used the money to go into business. He also performed a, sort, of vaudeville act in which he re-enacted the killing of Jesse James. Americans loved getting news of James. They consumed his image in newspaper photos, and even lined up to see his dead body after his death. Then they paid to see Robert Ford’s show.
I first heard of Robert Ford as a child. Elton John recorded an album titled, “Rock of the Westies”. One of the songs on that album is titled, “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)”. I found it to be a most unusual title then. I still do. I wondered, who was Robert Ford, and what does that mean? And more broadly, what is it about America where a Lincoln found infamy for fighting a Civil War to end slavery, and in ending it tried to reunite a country, and what does it say about America where a Ford found infamy for killing a man who fought a war to preserve slavery, and who became famous by being a murderer, robber, and was most certainly a racist who did not value America’s foundational values? Is meandering, or is this a meander, a boulder that belongs somewhere else, transported by a glacier. With America, it always seems to be both. We are off course. We are off course. We don’t know how and why that meander began, and we don’t really understand where we came from.
Walking in America today you may be faced with any number of things that should not be if America were what it claimed to be in the Declaration of Independence. Some of us have become impatient and resentful waiting for that promise to be fulfilled. Some here have benefitted from that disparity, in some ways, and are resentful of those using all that American democracy is supposed to be, because it conflicts with their understanding of freedom. It seems to me that that definition of freedom would be agreeable to Jesse James. And some are walking to America to have the sort of freedom that the founders promised to make. Some resent than for seeking that freedom, presumably thinking that it diminishes their own. That freedom was made for them, not “others”, in their view.
On January 6th, 2020, a lame duck President inspired an insurrection to overturn the result of an election which would remove him from office in 14 days. The Executive branch of the US government made war against the Legislative branch. We are off course in our democracy more than anytime since the Civil War, and from the outside, the enemies of democracy persist. We may be headed toward another civil war. America remains a place where criminality can be widely valued over governance. America remains a place where war can be valued over peace. America remains a place where some are welcomed, and some are literally walled off. America is a place where it can be worse to kill a criminal than it is to be one. God bless it, that positively astounds me.
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