- Historic Sites
From Camelot To Abilene
To Owen Wister, the unlikely inventor of the cowboy myth, the trail rider was “the last cavalier,” the savior of the Anglo-Saxon race
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
We think of the cowboy and of the open range as part and parcel of the American legend that spread eastward from the West during the nineteenth century. Yet the legend had not become national until the early twentieth century, and its principal literary architect was an Easterner to the core. The crucial event in its popular dissemination was The Virginian , a novel written by Owen Wister and published in 1902. Its success was instantaneous, large-scale, and enduring. Within four months it sold fifty thousand copies, and one hundred thousand in a little more than a year; it was reprinted fifteen times within seven months and nineteen times within the following eight years; fifteen more reprintings followed within a quarter of a century. Such different men as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry James praised it. In 1904 The Virginian was made into a play; in 1914 into a silent movie; in 1929 into a talking movie, with the then largely unknown Gary Cooper as the hero and Walter Huston as the villain; the movie launched Cooper’s career.
The Virginian was, thus, an event in the history of American literature—but even more, an event in the history of American imagination. It fixed the framework of the Western story for good, certainly for the better part of the twentieth century: for it was within this frame that most Western stories, whether in print, on screen, or on television, were to be set again and again and again.
The story of The Virginian is simple, and it may be summed up as follows: At the outset the narrator (very obviously Wister himself) meets “a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures.” He is a “cow-boy,” from “old Virginia” (except for one passing instance, we never learn his name), sent to meet the narrator at the railroad and to accompany him to the ranch of the latter’s friend, Judge Henry. Immediately he impresses the narrator with his bearing, his manner of speech, and his courage. There are various incidents demonstrating these characteristics of the Virginian, including—again very early in the story—his first encounter with the villain, Trampas, at the poker table. The Virginian is slow calling a bet. “Your bet, you son-of-a —,” Trampas says. “The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed.” (In the 1929 movie Cooper pushed it into the villain’s stomach.) The Virginian drawls the famous phrase “When you call me that, smile !” Trampas is silent. Then and there their mutual hatred begins. They confront each other several times during the hundreds of pages that follow. All their confrontations are verbal, or they are restricted to certain gestures, until near the end of the book. Molly Wood appears early in the story, too. She is a pert and independent and intelligent schoolteacher from Bennington, Vermont, who arrived to teach school in Bear Creek, Wyoming. Love occurs, though for awhile she keeps the Virginian at bay. In an early episode the Virginian rescues Molly from drowning; in a later episode she rescues him as he lies wounded in the desert. They are about to be married when the last dramatic encounter with Trampas develops suddenly. There is a saloon scene. Trampas, “courageous with whiskey,” tells the Virginian: “I’ll give you till sundown to leave town.” The Virginian says good-bye to his beloved. He steps out from the hotel. All the town is watching. The sun goes down in the moment when Trampas’ gun flashes. He misses, and the Virginian shoots him dead. Molly flies into his arms. Next day they are married by a bishop; they ride toward the mountains in the sunset; they return to find that Judge Henry has made the Virginian his partner. No happier ending could be imagined.
There are many oddities in this story. For one thing, there is not a single scene in The Virginian of cowboys actually herding cattle. Also, when Wister wrote about the West, the open range was already gone. As Wallace Stegner put it in his preface to My Dear Winter , a collection of the letters exchanged between Wister and Frederic Remington, Wister “acknowledged history in his novel by letting the Virginian take up land, marry, and settle down to the tamed routines of stock-farming. After the last brief flare-up of … wildness and killing, it is Molly Wood, and all she stands for, who wins.… [But] the tame ending that Wister gave him does not, in fact, ‘take.’ In the reader’s imagination the Virginian remains what he was before Molly threw a loop over him. He is as timeless and unchanging as Remington pictured him … and he is so because the national myth-making urge that obscurely guided Wister’s creation demanded that he be so.”
Yet none of these oddities compare to those of the writer who produced them. His vision was intimately involved with the gestation of The Virginian; but his character, and his life, accorded with the Western saga not at all.