The Virginian by Owen Wister
When you call me that, smile!
It is said that Owen Wister (1860 – 1938) heard a deputy sheriff in Wyoming address that remark to a man who had called him a SOB, and Wister was so struck by it that he used it to define his hero, the Virginian.
There is something essentially Western, and essentially true, about the fact that you can use a term of abuse to a man you like and respect, if you do it with a laugh, that you should never employ to another man. A slap-on-the-back kind of friendly insult at the bar could become a shootin’ matter.
The Virginian had a name. He confided it to his fiancée Molly and to the narrator, his good friend Ogden. Presumably Judge Henry, his employer, knew it and Molly’s mother must have had it too, for he wrote to her declaring his love for the girl and he would hardly have signed the letter Yours, The Virginian. But the rest of us will have to be content with just calling him the Virginian. It’s maybe just as well. He’s perhaps more mysterious – and slightly dangerous – like that.
Hero is the word, of course. No mere ‘central character’ he, still less an antihero. Countless early twentieth century female readers fell in love with him and male ones secretly wished they could be him. He is tall, handsome, reserved, brave, decent, strong, knowledgeable and funny. There ain’t a damn thing wrong with him – by the standards of Wister’s day.
There is something wrong with Molly, though. Miss Molly Stark Wood comes out from Bennington, Vermont to be the schoolmarm at Medicine Bow, Wyoming Territory, some time in the 1880s. She is a little conceited and a little coquettish but that’s OK. We don’t mind that. But she is also a snob. Wister makes her resist the Virginian’s advances for no other reason than her assumed superiority. The judge’s wife has no patience with her and tells her husband, “She is not good enough for him”. Molly’s landlady Mrs. Taylor delivers herself to Molly of the withering "I can't wait, deary. Since the roughness looks bigger to you than the diamond, you had better go back to Vermont. I expect you'll find better grammar there, deary." But of course Molly comes round and the story finishes in connubial bliss. I think Wister only made her waver to make the Virginian seem even nobler.
The Virginian is essentially a love story, the tale of true and finally happily consummated love between the hero and the heroine. At least we assume it is consummated: they bathe on separate sides of the island in the stream on their honeymoon and have separate rooms at Aunt Stark’s. Oh yes, I remember now; they had a large family. Sure, it was consummated. It’s just that writing in 1902, authors didn’t discuss such things.
It is also a comic novel. Whole chapters are devoted to humorous episodes, almost interludes, such as Chapter VI about Em’ly the hen and later the way the Virginian bests Trampas by telling an even taller story to him and his men, about frog farming, and having it believed. The narrator, who plays a not insignificant part in the plot also, so is not just an observer, is a self-confessed tenderfoot, a New Yorker, though he is no snob. Like Wister, he is fascinated by the frontier life, greatly admiring of frontier people and their ways, and he visits often, gradually becoming wise in the ways of the West. Still, the amusing experiences of a green Easterner out West were excellent comic fodder and became, as with much in The Virginian, a standard trope of the Western genre.
For the book was in so many ways a pioneer and a standard-setter. Wister’s daughter, herself to become a noted author, wrote:
. . . For the first time, a cowboy was a gentleman and a hero, but nobody realized then that the book was the master design on which thousands of Westerns would be modeled. Its hero was the first cowboy to capture the public's imagination, and hundreds of young girls fell in love with him . . . besides being handsome, he was humorous and human . . . The Virginian himself is the progenitor of the cowboy as folk figure. Because of him, little boys wear ten-gallon hats and carry toy pistols. This one novel set the tradition of the West permanently. We still have Western stories, Western movies, and Western radio and television drama in which the cowboy hero defends justice and his girl's honor and shoots it out with the villain . . . It was written as fiction but has become history . . .
“It was written as fiction but has become history”: yes, it is part of the curious process of the Western that fact became myth which then became the fact.
Owen Wister was born in Philadelphia, son of a well-to-do doctor. He had a cosmopolitan education in Switzerland and England before going to Harvard where he was a classmate (and admirer) of Theodore Roosevelt. He wanted to be a musician and studied for two years at the Paris Conservatory but then entered the Harvard Law School before practicing as a lawyer in Philadelphia.
Wister made many trips to the American West. On an 1893 trip to Yellowstone he met Frederic Remington, who remained a lifelong friend. Wister started writing in the 1890s, short pieces mostly, and several of these were later incorporated into The Virginian. It is significant that Wister, Roosevelt and Remington, as well as the narrator, Judge Henry and Molly Stark Wood in The Virginian, were all upper-class Easterners who went West to seek the ‘strenuous life’ and ‘find themselves’, or anyway have their prejudices confirmed.
Roosevelt, Remington and Wister were of course racialists who believed in a ‘natural aristocracy’ of virile men (and very rarely women) who would rise to the top and become the ruling class. They would then have the right to use violence to remain there. Roosevelt moderated these beliefs a little, at least during his political career, because you need votes. Remington was the nastiest racist of them; he clearly loathed and despised Indians, Blacks, Jews, anyone in fact he deemed to be ‘beneath’ him – the ‘lesser breeds’. Wister in his writings posed as the reasonable ‘philosopher’ of the racialist school of thought, justifying it (he thought) and even contradicting the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” He has his hero say, “Equality is a great big bluff and it’s easily called.” Wister thought that the great cattle ranches of Wyoming might prove the context for the emergence (or anyway revival) of a new, and superior, American racial type.
The Virginian, Wister’s only Western novel (unless you count the 1897 adventures of Lin McLean as a novel), was published in 1902 and was an immediate hit, being reprinted fourteen times in eight months. It became the archetypal literary Western. Wister adapted it for the stage soon afterwards and the first movie version appeared in 1914, directed by Cecil B DeMille and starring Dustin Farnum, who had appeared in the title role in the play. There was another silent version in 1923 starring Kenneth Harlan (with Russell Simpson as Trampas!) By the time the famous 1929 talkie was made, with Gary Cooper magisterial as the Virginian, the book had already sold 1.6m copies and had become, with Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), the premier Western novel.
I really like the book, for its leisurely pace and slow action, its wry humor verging on the cynical but never being that, and its breezy approach. It is much less 1900s-‘literary’ than, say, Zane Grey’s work, and contains a good deal less purple (sage) prose. True, the speech of the Westerners is rendered on the page in (for these days) far too hokey a way, but you do get used to that. I don’t know what was gained by writing Yu or pillo for you or pillow. The pronunciation is the same. It just becomes irritating – and risks being patronizing. But stylistically speaking most of The Virginian is pretty modern.
The characterization is strong and you get to know the principal characters well, the Virginian and Molly, of course, but also the villain Trampas, Shorty, the judge and his wife, the Taylors, Steve, Honey, Lin and the other drovers. Monte the horse.
Trampas, Spanish for cheating, or snares, and containing an element of tramp (considered the most worthless social type) is a good name for the villain, the very kind of man Wister and his fellow-travelers believed must not triumph, for they are low and unmanly types. And ever since James Fenimore Cooper, Virginians had been identified as the Americans closest in type to the old British nobility – the novel’s Virginian is a new kind of American aristocrat.
From a Western point of view, much of the action is fairly inconsequential but certain chapters stand out, XXVI for example, when the odious rancher Balaam brutalizes the sweet horse Pedro and he and the Virginian are attacked by Indians (interestingly, there’s a captivity-narrative reversal when the hero is wounded by Indians and it’s the heroine who rescues him). Or Chapter 30, the somber account of the lynching.
Murder by a mob is such a heinous crime that it is almost impossible to make any character in a novel or movie even remotely sympathetic when he carries it out. It is a major problem that all movie versions of The Virginian have. Wister does his best by making the victim (one of the victims anyway) forgive the leader of the lynchers, and by laying out the usual excuse that where there was no enforcement of law, people may take it into their hands. Even the judge attempts to justify the practice, to Molly, and draws a rather sophistical distinction between the peremptory hanging on suspicion of cattle thieves in Wyoming (acceptable) with the strangulation by a white mob of Negroes in the South (unacceptable).
Wister, in his arguments justifying lynching, essentially takes vigilantism (vigilantes claimed a natural and democratic right to violence to redress wrongs in the absence of law and order) into an assertion of race and class privilege. The big ranchers were superior to the small ones and entitled to use force to stay that way. It is a view that is hard to justify today – if it ever was justifiable. In many ways, though, Wister’s version of the Johnson County War is an apologia for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s actions, and Wister was definitely a WSGA partisan.
The actual hanging takes place ‘off stage’, as it were: the narrator remains in the stable and hears about it later. This, probably, was to soften the blow and make the grisly event slightly more palatable to Eastern readers. At least Wister had the courage to deal with the matter; he could easily have simply not mentioned it, or not have his hero lead the unappointed executioners, but lynching was widespread enough in the West, and in Wyoming cattle lands in particular, for the issue to be a difficult one to skip over. The fact remains that it was a disgusting and appalling act, and the ‘cheerful’ banter on the eve of the murder is unintentionally chilling. Lynching appeared all too often in later Western movies, often done casually and/or with laughing murderers. However ‘B’ or formulaic the picture, I am never less than revolted.
The other truly Western chapter is, of course, the penultimate one (the last chapter is devoted to a honeymoon, a bucolic idyll described, unfortunately, in terms so saccharine that your stomach will be upset), concerning the final confrontation with Trampas. Here we have the classic Western showdown. How many pulp novels have we read that contain such a fight, and how many Western movies have we seen! But this was the original, the archetype. Trampas really does say, “I’ll give you till sundown to leave town!” The actual shooting is done rapidly, almost again ‘off stage’ in a way. It is described from the Virginian’s point of view, in a blur; he does not really shoot consciously. Hollywood made up for that, of course, with far more dramatic versions! But what is most interesting, to me, is the conversation between the Virginian and Molly before the gunfight occurs.
From one standpoint, you have a rather silly Eastern dame with no understanding of the ways of the West who emotionally blackmails her lover in order to deflect him from the decent and noble action that he must undertake. Molly is appalled by the coming confrontation and gives the Virginian an ultimatum: renounce or she will not marry him. But the thing is, she’s right. She’s not right by the standards of the Virginian, or Owen Wister or 90% of the readers of the book, but she’s right. Such a duel is an outrageous, brutal, premeditated affair that in civilized countries or parts of countries would be illegal, it is cold-blooded and it is even essentially childish. We must use firearms against each other because he called me a coward or told me to get out of town or whatever. These are boys talking. Why would a sensitive, intelligent woman want to marry a man like that, a killer?
Of course, she relents. And she is made weaker by that, and her opposition comes to seem willful and girlish. She has to give way to the virility and domination of the hero. But she was right!
That’s what I think, anyway. And I speak as a lifelong lover of Westerns. I hugely enjoy those Main Street showdowns, and cheer for the hero and say good riddance as the villain falls to the dust. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. Lucky it’s only a film. Or a book.
Many people have watched Marshal Kane’s Quaker wife deploy very similar arguments in High Noon, and may have thought that scene original. But Gary Cooper as Kane had used very similar words when arguing with Molly in the 1929 The Virginian.
Another interesting aspect of the novel The Virginian, interesting to Western lovers anyway, is the fact that in what was essentially the very first ‘proper’ Western novel, before even the first (effectively the first) narrative Western movie had been made (The Great Train Robbery of 1903), the notion of ‘the end of the West’ was already there. We are used to Western movies of the 1960s and 70s describing the decline of the old West as ‘civilization’ encroached on the freedom and wildness of the frontier. Think of Ride the High Country (1962) or The Shootist (1976) or even The Magnificent Seven (1960). In all of them and many more it is sunset, the old ways are disappearing, there’s no place for a cow puncher any more – and still less for a gunfighter. Railroads, telephones, automobiles, churches and temperance societies have done for all that. But, we imagine, earlier Westerns had no such melancholy thoughts: they were all about manifest destiny, fighting the Indians, creating an exciting new world, pushing back the frontier. Those silent movies, the 1930s talkies, the 40s and 50s big-budget Westerns were far more sure of themselves and unquestioning about what was right. They were positive and self-confident. They looked to the future with hope.
Well, maybe, but on page 77 of The Virginian we already have this:
…they came upon the schoolhouse, roofed and ready for the first native Wyoming crop. It symbolized the dawn of a neighborhood, and it brought a change into the wilderness air. The feel of it struck cold upon the free spirits of the cow-punchers, and they told each other that, what with women and children and wire fences, this country would not long be a country for men.
Wister was writing at the turn of the century, when ‘the West’ was already gone and Eastern nostalgia about it was in full swing. Frederick Jackson Turner had delivered his famous paper on the closing of the Frontier in 1893. That ‘end of the West’ notion was embedded in the Western myth right from its inception.
Well, you have to read it, dear e-reader. It’s one of those essential rites of passage for any Western fan. But my guess is that you will actually rather enjoy it.
We’ll be reviewing the different movie versions in the days to come, so hurry back!