The Virginian is based on Owen Wister’s experiences in the cattle country of Wyoming during the 1880’s and 1890’s, and he used that personal knowledge to create the model for all future Western novels. The setting for the story is the cattle business of the Wyoming Territory, when tension grew between large cattle ranchers and smaller stock raisers. In April, 1892, wealthy cattlemen organized an expedition to arrest or kill all those in northern Wyoming who were suspected of being rustlers. The Johnson County War that ensued became one of the most notorious episodes of frontier violence. As an aristocratic visitor from Pennsylvania, Wister knew many of the men who were involved on the side of the large ranchers, and he used the people and events of the range war as a backdrop for the rivalry between the Virginian and his enemy, the rustler Trampas. He modeled Judge Henry on Frank Wolcott, a leading participant in the Johnson County violence.
Beyond describing the frontier situation, the novel had a larger artistic purpose. Wister traveled to the West to recuperate after a nervous breakdown and to experience a change from the spreading industrialism and social tension of the Eastern United States where he grew up. In The Virginian, Wister deals with the way the Eastern narrator and the Virginian’s future bride respond to the rough life in the West during the heyday of the range cattle industry. By the time Wister wrote his novel two decades later, the open range and the free life that the cowboys and ranchers knew was already vanishing. The Virginian reflects his sense that something valuable was lost with the spread of civilization, a feeling shared by many Americans in the early part of the twentieth century. Wister’s book evokes the spirit of the West and laments the passing of that spirit in the face of modern progress and economic development. In novel form, Wister expresses many of the same ideas that Frederick Jackson Turner discusses in his 1894 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and his 1920 book The Frontier in American History.
The Virginian is actually more a series of separate episodes and encounters than a fully realized novel. Some of these moments became classics of the...
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