The Virginian: How the West Was Written by Owen Wister

Just as Homer set the foundation of Western literature with The Iliad, so Owen Wister created the ur-narrative of another kind of “Western” literature in 1902 when he published The Virginian.

Wister is credited with writing the first novel of the American West, based on his own observations of visits to Wyoming, Montana and elsewhere. The book details the life and love of an unnamed character known as the Virginian. Wister touches on what became the classic Western themes: the guns, the cattle drives, rowdy card games, the loneliness of vast distances, the lovely and virginal school marm, religion and religious hucksters, the struggle to build a civil society, and even the gulf between the civilized “East” and the untamed “West.” The Virginian’s love interest, schoolteacher Molly Wood, hails from Bennington, Vermont, a locale that sets up humor and societal contrasts. A telling details is that Molly’s great-aunt had the honor of curtsying before the Marquis de Lafayette.

Taken together, these passages startle with the knowledge that they were new then. What we may consider cliches were once fresh and remarkable; I’m reminded of reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897 with all the undead themes of the undead genre.

Who was Owen Wister? He started life as a Philadelphia blueblood, educated in Europe and later at Harvard College and Harvard Law. Tart references in The Virginian to Wall Street, Bryn Mawr, Newport and Tiffany’s no doubt stemmed from personal observations. At Harvard, he became a close friend of future president Theodore Roosevelt, another proponent of the vigorous outdoor life. Restless as a lawyer, Wister moved on to politics and writing. The Virginian builds on his experiences and stories he heard on 15 carefully documented trips to the West. His politics remained on the conservative side, as he lived long enough to oppose Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

I knew nothing about Wister, his book or the 1960s TV series of the same name, so I didn’t know what to expect. Wister’s writing style ranged from straightforward to intricate Victorian-era ornate as he explored the “cow-boy” as a moral figure, chivalrous to women and animals, relentless foe of cattle thieves and other ne’er-do-wells. What struck me about the book was just not the themes, but their timeliness. The antique literature became a time machine giving a glimpse of behaviors and norms of a past era. And some of behaviors may not be so past.

For example, guns and rifles were common, but Wister depicted a country where gunfights were rare and were more the last resort of problem solving. While a man of action who never backed down from conflict, the Virginian spent more of his time as a ranch foreman dealing with human resources issues, as we would call them today, and logistics management—getting those dogies to market.

Kindness to those in need, implacable foe of oppressors

He’s also a friend of animals. Beneath his storytelling and aw-shucks conversational tone, the Virginian has no tolerance for the exploitation of the helpless. In this passage, he responds to a frustrated cowboy’s attack on a lovable horse named Pedro:

Pedro sank motionless, his head rolling flat on the earth. Balaam was jammed beneath him. The man had struggled to his feet before the Virginian reached the spot, and the horse then lifted his head and turned it piteously round.

Then vengeance like a blast struck Balaam. The Virginian hurled him to the ground, lifted and hurled him again, lifted him and beat his face and struck his jaw. The man’s strong ox-like fighting availed nothing. He fended his eyes as best he could against these sledge-hammer blows of justice. He felt blindly for his pistol. That arm was caught and wrenched backward, and crushed and doubled. He seemed to hear his own bones, and set up a hideous screaming of hate and pain. Then the pistol at last came out, and together with the hand that grasped it was instantly stamped into the dust. Once again the creature was lifted and slung so that he lay across Pedro’s saddle a blurred, dingy, wet pulp.

Vengeance had come and gone. The man and the horse were motionless. Around them, silence seemed to gather like a witness.

“If you are dead,” said the Virginian, “I am glad of it.” 

But the man of action is also a man of letters, even a letter writer. Thanks to his blooming relationship with Molly Wood, he finds a deep appreciation for Shakespeare, Dickens and Browning, identifying with Prince Hal and other characters. In some ways, the Virginian is more literate than many current English majors.

War and social division, quality and inequality

Reading the book through a 21st century lens, issues jumped out at me that may have been of passing interest in 1902. The Civil War hovers around the edges of the book, such as in a scene on a train:

So I was passing that way also, walking for the sake of ventilation from a sleeping-car toward a bath, when the language of Colonel Cyrus Jones came out to me. The actual colonel I had never seen before. He stood at the rear of his palace in gray flowery mustaches and a Confederate uniform, telling the wishes of his guests to the cook through a hole.

Wister treats social divisions, too, especially between the more settled parts of the United States and the wide-open canvas of the West, where unfamiliar groups and behaviors lurked. Discussing Molly’s marital prospects, her family worried about the disasters lurking:

Somebody said to Andrew Bell that they heard Miss Molly Wood was engaged to marry a RUSTLER.

“Heavens, Andrew!” said his wife; “what is a rustler?”

It was not in any dictionary, and current translations of it were inconsistent. A man at Hoosic Falls said that he had passed through Cheyenne, and heard the term applied in a complimentary way to people who were alive and pushing. Another man had always supposed it meant some kind of horse. But the most alarming version of all was that a rustler was a cattle thief.

Now the truth is that all these meanings were right. The word ran a sort of progress in the cattle country, gathering many meanings as it went. It gathered more, however, in Bennington. In a very few days, gossip had it that Molly was engaged to a gambler, a gold miner, an escaped stage robber, and a Mexican bandit; while Mrs. Flynt feared she had married a Mormon.

The Virginian also keenly observes issues of equality and inequality. In a discussion with Molly, he observes (“cyards” is his Virginia-accented pronunciation of “cards”):

“I’ll tell you what,” pursued the cow-puncher, with slow and growing intensity, “equality is a great big bluff. It’s easy called.”

“I didn’t mean—” began Molly.

“Wait, and let me say what I mean.” He had made an imperious gesture with his hand. “I know a man that mostly wins at cyards. I know a man that mostly loses. He says it is his luck. All right. Call it his luck. I know a man that works hard and he’s gettin’ rich, and I know another that works hard and is gettin’ poor. He says it is his luck. All right. Call it his luck. I look around and I see folks movin’ up or movin’ down, winners or losers everywhere. All luck, of course. But since folks can be born that different in their luck, where’s your equality? No, seh! call your failure luck, or call it laziness, wander around the words, prospect all yu’ mind to, and yu’ll come out the same old trail of inequality.” He paused a moment and looked at her. “Some holds four aces,” he went on, “and some holds nothin’, and some poor fello’ gets the aces and no show to play ‘em; but a man has got to prove himself my equal before I’ll believe him.”

Justice and injustice in America

Wister’s characters address issues of lawlessness, with an unblinking frankness of the era’s realities that deliver shock value today. The key passage deserves quoting at length:

“Well,” he said, coming straight to the point, “some dark things have happened.” And when she made no answer to this, he continued: “But you must not misunderstand us. We’re too fond of you for that.” 

“Judge Henry,” said Molly Wood, also coming straight to the point, “have you come to tell me that you think well of lynching?”

He met her. “Of burning Southern negroes in public, no. Of hanging Wyoming cattle thieves in private, yes. You perceive there’s a difference, don’t you?”

“Not in principle,” said the girl, dry and short.

“Oh—dear—me!” slowly exclaimed the Judge. “I am sorry that you cannot see that, because I think that I can. And I think that you have just as much sense as I have.” The Judge made himself very grave and very good-humored at the same time. The poor girl was strung to a high pitch, and spoke harshly in spite of herself.

“What is the difference in principle?” she demanded.

“Well,” said the Judge, easy and thoughtful, “what do you mean by principle?”

“I didn’t think you’d quibble,” flashed Molly. “I’m not a lawyer myself.”

A man less wise than Judge Henry would have smiled at this, and then war would have exploded hopelessly between them, and harm been added to what was going wrong already. But the Judge knew that he must give to every word that the girl said now his perfect consideration.

“I don’t mean to quibble,” he assured her. “I know the trick of escaping from one question by asking another. But I don’t want to escape from anything you hold me to answer. If you can show me that I am wrong, I want you to do so. But,” and here the Judge smiled, “I want you to play fair, too.”

“And how am I not?”

“I want you to be just as willing to be put right by me as I am to be put right by you. And so when you use such a word as principle, you must help me to answer by saying what principle you mean. For in all sincerity I see no likeness in principle whatever between burning Southern negroes in public and hanging Wyoming horse-thieves in private. I consider the burning a proof that the South is semi-barbarous, and the hanging a proof that Wyoming is determined to become civilized. We do not torture our criminals when we lynch them. We do not invite spectators to enjoy their death agony. We put no such hideous disgrace upon the United States. We execute our criminals by the swiftest means, and in the quietest way. Do you think the principle is the same?”

Molly had listened to him with attention. “The way is different,” she admitted.

“Only the way?”

“So it seems to me. Both defy law and order.”

“Ah, but do they both? Now we’re getting near the principle.”

“Why, yes. Ordinary citizens take the law in their own hands.”

“The principle at last!” exclaimed the Judge.

As these passages show, The Virginian is intensely quotable, because of Wister’s style and his subject material. On every page I knew I was reading the birth of the Western, a genre that’s never truly vanished, and the raw material for reimaginings and reinterpretations, right down to the new Netflix series, Godless. The themes of that series include religion, the birth of civil institutions, a lovely (but not virginal) schoolmarm, women without men (a reversal of the usual western imbalance), breathtaking vistas, horses, oily Eastern business interests, black and Indian communities, and railroads opening the land.

Had Owen Wister seen Godless, he’d recognize a lot of it. He and the Virginian were there first.

Live From New York: It’s Little Home Companion on the Prairie!

By sheer dumb coincidence, I bought tickets to see A Prairie Home Companion at New York’s Town Hall on December 2. That turned out to be four days after Minnesota Public Radio fired retired PHC host and creator Garrison Keillor for allegations of improper behavior.

I’d been a fan of PHC over the Keillor years, not rabid, but enough to appreciate his humor and inventiveness. I’ve spent much less time listening to the retooled version hosted by mandolin player Chris Thile. Still, I was eager to see the show live.

The Godzilla in the room as the show started at 5:45 pm (great timing for us 60-somethings) was what, if anything, would Thile say about Keillor. Business as usual, which would be ridiculous, or a statement. If so, when?

Thile, to his credit, came right out and addressed what everybody knew.

“It’s been a rough week,” he said, with a chuckle, not directly mentioning Keillor but the line made total sense. He soon turned to Keillor and called the situation “heartbreaking.” He also referred to the national movement to address the “harmful power imbalance that women have had to endure for so long in our culture.” Heartfelt and straight ahead, Thile said what was needed and got on with the show. This could be a model for upcoming awards shows for movies, TV, theater, journalism . . .

The show itself impressed me with the range of performers moving in and out of a crowded stage, with both PHC musicians and a set-up for the Austin band Spoon. Chanteuse Cécile McLorin Savant, whom I had heard twice before, did some saucy jazz numbers that seemed right for the times. Skit veterans Tim Russell and Serena Brook and sound effects guy Fred Newman came out to give the audience some of that old-time PHC humor religion.

Still, this reboot of PHC differs wildly from the original. While I’d estimate the Keillor version ran 70 percent skits and stories and 30 percent music, the Thile version at Town Hall was maybe 90 percent music and talk about music, 10 percent comic material. I looked at summaries of recent shows that featured more story-telling, so that mix could vary. I doubt we’ll be hearing about Guy Noir, Private Eye; cowboys Lefty and Dusty; reports from Lake Wobegon. The handful of skits carried on some of the tone and vocal stylings, but I sensed they are now the side dish, not the main course.

Thile himself sets the pace with a physical energy that reminded me of comedian Conan O’Brien. I had never picked up on that by hearing him on the radio. His musicianship on the mandolin is dazzling, as is his love of music across genres. Saturday’s show slammed through and explained bits and pieces of Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Soul” (recorded at New York’s Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969), Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (which Dylan performed at Town Hall in 1963), “I Won’t Grow Up” from Peter Pan (in honor of actress Mary Martin’s December 1 birthday) and “Teen Town” by bassist Jaco Pastorius and the group Weather Report. Along with Savant, Spoon and guitarist-singer Sarah Jarosz, Thile wove together a master class on American musical styles and history.

That’s fantastic if you’re seriously into music. If you want monologues and wacky skits, you’re mostly up the Wobegon Creek without a paddle, at least in this stage of PHC. Where Thile and Co. will take it is anybody’s guess; MPR says a new name is in the works. That’s both good and bad; good because it gets Thile out of the shadow of Keillor and gives the show its own brand identity with a built-in audience; bad because it severs more sharply the connection with a program that’s become an American institution since 1974. Seeing the show live, if nothing else, gives me more of a stake in whatever comes next.

With institutions crashing all around us, I’m curious about what emerges from this particular pile of theatrical disorder on the shores of Lake Wobegon.