The final two episodes of “Wild West Month” on the PBS series, American Experience, aired on January 31st. The 5th and 6th installments profiled Annie Oakley (1860-1926) and Jesse James (1847-1882), respectively.

Oakley and James each became public figures during their own lifetimes and Western icons after their deaths. The PBS profiles demonstrated how both have served as a projection of myth for public needs.

Emerging from a poverty-stricken youth in Ohio, Annie Oakley’s sharpshooting skill and prominence in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the 1880s led her to become the first real female superstar in America. Oakley’s public image of a lady, dressed in mid-calf skirt and handling a powerful gun, was, as historian Elliott West noted in the episode, “provocative”.  

Yet Oakley met a public need for constrained titillation in the Victorian era. Excitement toward a female public figure that outperformed men in what had been the traditional masculine realm of target shooting was moderated by Oakley’s overall lady-like image. As Elliot West noted, that image was what “many people felt comfortable with.”

Moreover, in the late-19th century many Americans felt the Old West was vanishing and with it certain values sacrificed to modernity. Oakley and her gun symbolically represented the Old West for at least a little while longer – perhaps while she and the Wild West shows continued those values were still with the public.

The Jesse James episode did well to draw upon such a credible historical writer as T.J. Stiles to provide commentary. Stiles authored the comprehensive Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002), in which he contextualizes James as a post-Civil War Confederate more than any anti-corporate hero.

Yet despite that historical role – demonstrated in the research of contemporary writers like Stiles – it was the myth of Jesse James as a (mid) Western “Robin Hood” that had emerged by 1900. The PBS episode gave one explanation for that emerging myth – by the turn-of-the-century many citizens had come to view corporations as a malevolent and dominant force in American life. The stories of a Jesse James who attacked banks and railroads gave a hero to lower socio-economic groups. That he was assassinated while unarmed and from behind by a member of his own gang only heightened his noble stature while serving the public need for an equalizing hero. This heroic stature is despite the fact, as T.J. Stiles has noted, there has been no proof that James ever shared his plunder beyond that of his own outlaw band.

The opening scene from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), drawn from the Ron Hansen novel of the same name and starring Brad Pitt, gives a sense of the mythic dimension that has been afforded to Jesse James.

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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