The Virginian

by Owen Wister

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The Virginian appeared at a time when much current literature was being revised for the stage and collectively contributing to the heyday of melodrama. Celebrated plays such as Rip Van Winkle and The Count of Monte Cristo were dramatized adaptations of popular literature.

Influenced by this era's fascination with melodrama, Wister seriously attempted to write a stage version of his novel but was hampered by his lack of expertise. After two years of producing unacceptable manuscripts, he asked his friend, Kirk LaShelle, who had completed other adaptations, to write a stage version of The Virginian. In 1904 this LaShelle-Wister collaboration appeared on Broadway with Dustin Farnum as the Virginian and continued for about four months. Criticism was mostly favorable, as indicated by these comments from the New York Times: "The accuracy of detail, and the consequent wealth of true atmosphere is the chief value of the play. In a large degree, Mr. Wister has brought the true West of twenty years ago to the stage." Following this New York opening, the play went on the road for ten years and appeared sporadically until as late as 1928.

The Virginian was featured as a silent movie in 1914 with Dustin Farnum and later produced by Paramount as a motion picture in 1930 with Gary Cooper and in 1945 with Joel McCrea. A writer for Western Films comments that the 1930 version had "rich and excellent characterizations" and contained a final scene with a "walk-down shoot-out that climaxes the movie." He concludes by labeling The Virginian "the ultimate Western." On the other hand, the 1946 version was panned by the same writer as "a lethargic remake" which features a "watered down" plot and "muted humor with simplified characters." Consequently, it was rated a "reduced routine oater."

In 1964 The Virginian experienced a resurgence of popularity when it appeared as a 90-minute television series, starring James Drury as the Virginian and Doug McClure as Trampas. The series followed Wister's original formula Western technique. It was broadcast by NBC until 1969.


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Cobbs, John L. Owen Wister. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Argues that Wister was a good writer whose works deserve more attention. Devotes one chapter to a discussion of The Virginian and provides a good survey of other secondary sources on the book through the early 1980’s.

Etulain, Richard W. Owen Wister. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1973. A brief survey of Wister’s career and a good introduction to his writings. Includes some perceptive comments about The Virginian.

Lambert, Neal. “Owen Wister’s Virginian: The Genesis of a Cultural Hero.” Western American Literature 6 (Summer, 1971): 99-107. A perceptive analysis of the development and meaning of the central figure of Wister’s novel by one of the leading students of his work.

Payne, Darwin. Owen Wister: Chronicler of the West, Gentleman of the East. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985. The best available biography of Wister, which draws on extensive research in his papers at the Library of Congress and other manuscript collections. Contains an abundance of material on the history of The Virginian and the response it evoked during Wister’s lifetime.

White, G. Edward. The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience: The West of Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Owen Wister. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968. Examines the way in which Wister interacted with the West and the historical circumstances that led him to write The Virginian. White deals with Wister’s links with participants in the Johnson County War of April, 1892.

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Historical and Social Context