Thursday, December 1, 2016

Pulitzer Prize Winner T. J. Stiles Discusses Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri


St. Louis Civil War Roundtable
On the last day of November, I accompanied my writing friend and critique group member, Pat Wahler, across the Missouri River from St. Charles to the Civil War Roundtable of St. Louis event in South St. Louis.

Until recently, I hadn’t heard about the Civil War Roundtable of St. Louis. The warm and welcoming group's motto is, “bringing history to life,” and I'm glad I found out about this hidden St. Louis literary gem.

Pat and I attended this special event to hear acclaimed biographer and two-time Pulitzer Prize winning writer and National Book Award winner, T. J. Stiles. His Pulitzer Prize winning works include biographies of Cornelius Vanderbilt and George Armstrong Custer, which also won a Spur Award.  

Stiles' Civil War Roundtable talk highlighted some of the guerilla battles that savaged Missouri during the Civil War. He spoke with clarity and passion about how that vicious fighting impacted the life of Jesse James, the subject of his biography, Jesse James: the Last Rebel of the Civil War.

I’m interested in Missouri history, and Pat has completed a manuscript about the wife of Jesse James, so having an opportunity to listen to Mr. Stiles talk about Jesse James, one of Missouri’s most notorious historical figures, was an exceptional opportunity for both of us.

T. J. Stiles on Jesse James
After dinner, Mr. Stiles began his talk by setting the stage of a deeply divided Missouri, a state with Southern sensibilities and which shared borders with three free states. Violence against Jesse's family and other Southern sympathizers in the western part of Missouri near the Kansas border fostered James’ deeply held anti-Union feelings. According to Stiles, James was not only an outlaw bandit and a killer, he was also a complicated man with strong political convictions. For Jesse, the war was personal. James' path was encouraged by his iron-willed mother Zerelda, who was once described as “the meanest woman in Missouri.”

Mr. Stiles’ fascinating talk was followed by a brief question and answer session.

I’m generally more of a note-taker and listener than a questioner, but I was curious to find out how Mr. Stiles selects his subjects for research and writing.  So, I stepped out of my comfort zone and raised my hand. Because he spoke directly to me when he answered my question, I didn’t jot down his answer, but here’s what I recall.

The subjects he selects are:   

            Something/someone he likes reading about

            Dramatic/complex characters

            Something about which he wants to say something original or to take a different approach

            Something that results in a change in emphasis or perspective about the subject

         
Donna Volkenannt and T. J. Stiles
Afterwards, Pat and I joined a long line of folks waiting to have books signed or wanting to chat with Mr. Stiles, who graciously stayed until he met with the last person in line.

He even posed for photos. The one on the left is of him and me, taken by Pat.

You can read more about T. J. Stiles and his critically acclaimed books on his website.

The Civil War Roundtable of St. Louis will hold its next dinner in January with guest speaker Molly Kodner, Archivist at the Missouri History Museum. I'm looking forward to that discussion.

14 comments:

  1. Donna--Thanks for sharing about this evening. It sounds like a fun, informative event. (I hope it spurred Pat on.)

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    1. Hi Sioux,
      You are welcome. Maybe you can make the January event? And Pat was thrilled to meet Mr. Stiles. Me too!

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  2. Somebody should write about "the meanest woman in Missouri!"

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    1. Hi Val,
      I think you're on to something. From the description of her during the talk, I sure wouldn't want to mess with her.

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  3. Hello Donna. Thank you so much for your visit today. Your comment was definitely not too long----very informative. I always am happy when you stop by to visit. Susan

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    Replies
    1. Hi Susan,
      You are welcome. I always enjoy visiting your blog.

      Delete
  4. I sure wish I could've joined you, Donna. I haven't read any of T.J. Stiles books, but I'll look for them now. Btw--I agree with Val--someone should write about "the meanest woman in Missouri."

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    Replies
    1. Hi Clara,
      Thanks for stopping by, and I wish you could've joined up as well. I agree; I think a book about Jesse's mom would be a hit!

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  5. This was so much fun! I'm definitely up for going again. By the way, many years ago someone did write a novel about Zerelda, but I don't think its in print anymore. She was quite a colorful character, but not exactly a sympathetic one.

    Pat
    www.patwahler.com

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    Replies
    1. Hi Pat,
      I'll drive next time--and maybe the traffic won't be so bad. it was a fun evening!

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  6. How fascinating! I'm related to Jesse James. My mom got tired of people not believing us (both my mom and dad and their entire families are from Missouri), so she joined Ancestry.com just to trace it back. She has a printout of it...we aren't descended from him directly but one of his siblings, I think?

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    1. Hi Stephanie,
      How exciting and wonderful that your mom took the plunge and did the research on Ancestry.com. I've been wanting to do more research on my family. Maybe I'll do more next year.

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  7. I'm sorry I had to miss this one. Sounds like it was a great event. I'D like to attend next month!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Sarah,
      It would be great if you can join us next month. It was well worth the trip.
      Donna

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