What If the James Boys Met?
GUY RAZ, host:
The year is 1876 and the novelist Henry James and his psychologist brother William are the toast of the east coast intellectual set. Now the two younger brothers are thought to be dead after going off to fight in the Civil War some years earlier. But that presumption is wrong. Henry James learns the truth during a fateful train rise on the Missouri Pacific Express bound for St. Louis.
The train is brought to a screeching halt by a band of outlaws. And soon it becomes obvious. Two of these bandits are his long lost brothers. The notorious bank robbers; Frank and Jessie James.
Now, textbooks seemed to have neglected this chapter in American history so a new book tries to rectify that error. It's called "The James Boys" and it's written by Richard Liebmann-Smith. He joins me now from our New York bureau. Mr. Liebmann-Smith, welcome.
Mr. RICHARD LIEBMANN-SMITH (Author, "The James Boys"): Thank you.
RAZ: Now I'd like to keep this going, but we should get one thing straight right now. This is a joke. Henry and William James were not related to the outlaws Jesse and Frank James.
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: That is correct. Henry and William were brothers and Frank and Jesse were brothers, but they were not brothers of each other.
RAZ: But you've written a book in which the conceit is that they are all related. So how did this idea come about?
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: Many, many years ago when I was undergraduate at Stanford, I had a professor named Otis Pease who was teaching a course in 19th century American history and he began by saying jokingly that the story of America in the 19th century could be encapsulated in the story of the James brothers. William and Henry in the east and Frank and Jesse in the west.
That was the seminal moment. Only later did I learn that in fact William and Henry James had two younger brothers. They really did in history. Their names were Robertson and Garth Wilkinson James, and they were not the geniuses that William and Henry were. They fought in the Civil War; however, which William and Henry managed not to do. And after that they went out west. They lived out west and had wasted horrible lives.
RAZ: But they were not bank robbers.
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: They were not bank robbers. That far they did not go. But in this book they become, Rob and Wilkie become Frank and Jesse.
RAZ: And in the book, the outlaws Frank and Jesse James essentially kidnap the novelist Henry James from the train and Henry manages to send a letter out to his brother William James at Harvard explaining what happened. Can you read that for us?
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: That's right. This is the beginning of his long tale of woe. He says, Dearest William, I am afraid that I have neglected writing home longer than has been agreeable to you. But the delay has been inevitable and when I describe the perfectly infernal circumstances that have stayed my pen, I fancy you will surely forgive my silence.
(Soundbite of Mr. Liebmann-Smith Speaking French)
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: In brutal summary, our late soldier brothers Rob and Wilkie are neither late nor soldiers. They are very much alive and they are outlaws, having adopted the prenom de gaer, Jesse and Frank while retaining our illustrious surname which they drag through the mud at every criminal outing.
RAZ: Now, I don't want to give too much of the plot away here, but eventually Henry James gets dragged into the infamous and botched heist at the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Now that heist really happened in 1876 and you describe it accurately.
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: Pretty accurately. Henry was not there as far as I know.
RAZ: Of course, right, Henry James, the novelist was not there.
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: But…
RAZ: And he certainly wasn't an accomplice to the crime.
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: That's right. But you should know that there has been for many years a debate about this because every eye witness or many eye witnesses believes that there was a ninth man. There were eight that were ever charged with the crime, but there's a feeling among many witnesses was that there was a ninth man. And now we know who he is.
RAZ: Henry James.
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: Henry James.
RAZ: And in the story, how did Henry James perform as a bank robber?
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: He's actually not that good at it. He falls into a - first of all he's not equipped to handle the six guns and the prancing thoroughbred. But the other thing is he falls into a very observational mode which was his favorite mode of being. So he doesn't really participate fully in the bank robbery and that causes a lot of trouble for the gang which they ultimately pin on him.
RAZ: Right. Richard Liebmann-Smith, in this book, at a certain point it seems as if you're deliberately sort of aping Henry James' own writing style.
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: That's half true. What I was going for was the kind of flavor of that style. And also the flavor overly pompous academic style. So it's not exactly Henry's style, but it's meant to suggest it in a lot of places, especially places where he is involved in describing things or thinking about things. And many of the things that I put into his mind come from his mind. There are things that he wrote sometimes in the language that he wrote them.
RAZ: Now the book is obviously very well researched. I mean there's a lot of historical detail in here. So much in fact that it's sometimes hard to tell where the fact and the fiction diverge.
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: That's correct.
RAZ: I mean do you sort of get a kick out of that?
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: I get a kick out of it. In my mind it's all true. No, really, I've now - I guess I could tell you what's real and what's not. But at this point they are so blended in my mind that I kind of believe it.
RAZ: I sometimes found myself sort of thumbing through a history book and going back to the novel trying to figure out what actually happened. And a lot of it is historically accurate. How did you do the research for the book? What did you have to do?
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: I could've gotten a doctorate for what I did. No, really. Enormous amounts of reading. There's a huge literature on both William and Henry, a biographical literature and also on Frank and Jesse. There are floods of books on both of these brotherhoods. And I, you know, delved into that and I have a whole shelf at home of I think 150 or so books, plus whatever I, you know, scraped out of the library and the internet.
RAZ: So in a sort of madcap tale of Henry James and William James and Frank and Jesse James sort of encountering one another in different ways, I sort of wonder if you kind of have to be familiar with Henry James' novels or William James' work on psychology or even the capers carried out by Frank and Jesse James in order to sort of get the book.
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: I don't think that's true, only in the sense that I have been careful, I think, to describe those things, to talk about Henry's books, to talk about William's philosophizing and psychologizing, and to talk about the degradations of Frank and Jesse. But what I hope is that the story, because there really is a story here, and I hope that the story carries people along and they don't have to worry too much about, "A," you know, what's real and what's not real, and B, whether or not these details are accurate.
RAZ: Mr. Liebmann-Smith, do you suppose that one day an unsuspecting college student might stumble upon the book without knowing that it's a parody and then you could - some sort of read about the brothers Henry and Jesse James on Wikipedia or something?
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: I think that's quite likely and I'll tell you why. I once wrote a story about the silent film career of Albert Einstein that was published in a Playboy magazine many, many years ago and that happened. There was a student at the University of Chicago who came running to her professor and said I want to do my master's thesis on the films of Albert Einstein. And she learned, much to her sorrow that that was not the case. So this - it could happen here. I hope not. I hope it doesn't hurt anybody.
RAZ: Well, Richard Liebmann-Smith, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. LIEBMANN-SMITH: Thank you.
RAZ: Richard Liebmann-Smith is the author of "The James Boys: A Novel Account of Four Desperate Brothers." It's published by Random House.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.