The Shoot Out Between the Jesse James Biographers
Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.
It wasn't high noon. And spectators did not have to fear being accidentally taken out by a stray shot. But there was no mistaking what was taking place. It was a good old-fashioned western shoot-out. We are speaking of a recent exchange on HNN's discussion boards between the pistols-drawn, trigger-happy biographers of Jesse James, Ted P. Yeatman and T. J. Stiles. Yeatman, widely considered the most knowledgeable expert on James's career, fired the first shot December 21, accusing Stiles, author of the new bestseller, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, of manipulating evidence to prove a thesis. Why else had Stiles changed his view-- advanced in a book published in 1994-- that "newspaper editor John N. Edwards was probably the author of the 'Jesse James' letters." "In his new book," Yeatman charged, "Mr. Stiles fails to explain this abrupt about face, which is central to his thesis that Jesse James was a political 'terrorist.' "
Returning fire the next day, Stiles accused Yeatman of wanting to "discredit my book" "rather than simply engaging in healthy, respectful debate," perhaps because "he may see my book as injuring his status as a leading historian of the James brothers." Stiles then went on to make a disclosure -- switching metaphors, it was a genuine "Perry Mason" moment--that heretofore had escaped Yeatman's detection. Stiles, it turned out, was not the author of the book that came out under his name in 1994--which was published by Chelsea House as a "young-adult biography":
[3:37 pm] When I was a graduate student, I was paid a small fee to conduct research for it (essentially a summary of what had been published about Jesse James up to that point), which was then written up by the Chelsea House staff. It was published under my name against my wishes. Chelsea House has long since agreed to remove my name from it. Does anyone really care that I now contradict statements published in a book for children eight years earlier, a book that the publisher agrees is not mine?
Less than two hours later came Yeatman's reply:
[5:19pm] Personally, I would NEVER let ANY book go out with my name on it as author that I disageed with. Was this very professional of all concerned? The various reviews list you as author. Is this undeserved praise you were given? Why is it not mentioned in your current book that you were not the author? You have to understand here that the historical community has been rocked with some rather major scandals and credibility of same has suffered in consequence. ...
We may have to agree to disagree on a number of points. As you and I are aware, there are numerous gaps in the primary source data. Just were did you find an account that positively identified Jesse James as the killer of Sheets in the Gallatin robbery of Dec. 1869? Also, have you ever seen the manuscript copies of the letters Jesse sent to the various newspapers? I sure haven't, and no one that I know has.
Then Stiles's reply:
[7:54pm] The bulk of your posting is exactly the sort of debate that I think is entirely appropriate. It is not my purpose to debate point by point with you here, but I think that your questions about my book are serious ones regarding a topic that, as you say, involves fragmentary evidence. I have made my interpretations and have drawn conclusions from that evidence, and realize that it is quite possible to disagree on some of them--indeed, I often point out other possibilities in my endnotes....
On the other hand, I think the importance you place on Chelsea House's children's book, and my long-past relationship with the publisher, is off the mark, and simply not relevant to a debate over my book. There's no scandal in the difficulty I had in getting the publisher to remove my name from a book I'm not responsible for.
It was now three days before Christmas, of which Stiles took note: "I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year."
And so it ended.