Owen Wister (1860-1938), creator of the first genuine Western, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902), is not the kind of person one would ordinarily think of as the author of cowboy novels. Born into a wealthy Philadelphia family, Wister received the best education his day could offer, culminating in a degree from Harvard. Culturally sophisticated, Wister enjoyed close friendships with Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Theodore Roosevelt, and his abilities as a pianist impressed even Franz Liszt, for whom he played at Bayreuth. Talent and family connections did not bring happiness: Unable to find a satisfying career in either the arts or the tawdry business world recommended by his father, Wister suffered a nervous breakdown in 1885, for which his doctor prescribed a recuperative trip to Wyoming. During this vacation on the cattle ranch of a family friend, he became impressed with the fictional potential of the American cowboy and began the literary experimentation that would lead to creation of the Western novel.
The Virginian was not the first appearance of the cowboy in American literature. The local colorist Alfred Henry Lewis, several dime novelists, Wister himself as early as 1891, and others had featured cowboy heroes in novels and stories. However, it was Wister’s nameless Virginian who first provided just the right combination of colorful dress and speech, violent environment, and romantic potential to set the pattern for a new literary genre’s success.
The critical novelist James expressed admiration for The Virginian, and many readers with more simplistic preconceptions regarding Westerns are surprised at the sophistication of the novel. Although the novel is somewhat episodic because it grew in part from short stories, The Virginian’s two main plots—the corruption of Trampas from an honest cowhand to a rustler, which results in the lynching of the Virginian’s friend, Steve, and Trampas’s death at the Virginian’s hands in the famous walkdown; and the Virginian’s courtship of the eastern schoolmarm, Molly Wood—are complex and skillfully narrated. Critics have observed that, although a cowboy novel, The Virginian contains not a single scene in which cowboys actually work with “cows,” but such facile judgments do scant justice to the social and historical realism of the novel. The cowboy’s dress, language, customs, ethics, and humor, and the environmental imperatives within which he operates, are carefully depicted and assessed.
Wister’s literary output was not great, for he was not a prolific writer, and the West was only one of his concerns. Moreover, The Virginian is marred by much of the same confusion over the meaning of the West that had haunted Cooper: How can one relate the morally innocent—yet savage and violent—tenor of Western life to the culturally sophisticated, yet corrupt, East? The marriage of the Virginian and Molly indicates some sort of cultural accommodation, but in his final collection of Western stories, When West Was West (1928), Wister concludes that no such accommodation is possible.
As important as The Virginian was in the creation of the Western, no single work can create a genre, and it remained for Wister’s innumerable successors and imitators to develop, out of the materials provided by The Virginian, the Western formula. By far the most prominent of Wister’s early successors was Zane Grey (1872-1939). Grey’s family had figured with some significance in the history of the Ohio River frontier, and he was reared on tales of...
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