From Camelot To Abilene


Owen Wister (he never liked his first name: those close to fhim called him “Dan”) was born of an old and distinguished Philadelphia family. The dominant influence in his early life was that of his grandmother, Fanny Kemble, the actress and writer. He was a strange, withdrawn, talented boy, somehow “deficient in animal spirits,” his grandmother once said. He had been to boarding school in Switzerland at an early age; he learned to speak impeccable French. At fifteen he composed an opera with his grandmother. He earned his Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, majoring in music, graduating summa cum laude . He returned to Europe, with a pocketful of introductions. At the age of twenty-two he was in Bayreuth, where he was received by Richard Wagner and by Franz Liszt. He played one of his compositions to Liszt who stood up behind the young American, making suggestions as the piece tinkled on, and then sat down to write a letter to Fanny Kemble: her grandson had “ un talent prononcé ,” a definite talent.

Surely this was auspicious: but trouble was bound to arise. Owen’s father was not pleased with his son’s proposed career in music. The son, deeply affected by his father’s evident unhappiness, relented. He took up a deadly job, arranged by his relatives: computing interest on the balances of depositors, buried in the vaults of the Union Safe Deposit Company in Boston. Two years later he suffered a nervous collapse. He had returned to Philadelphia where he was fortunate enough to be put under the care of a family friend, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who advised the young Wister to go West for a month or so.

This was not as daring a piece of advice as it might seem. During the mid-eighties a number of Easterners, usually the sons of wealthy families, either were sent West by their families or chose themselves to take a sporting trip thereabouts—Theodore Roosevelt, Boies Penrose, Frederic Remington, for example, all contemporaries of Wister. Nor was Wister’s traveling particularly adventurous; he was accompanied by two Philadelphia ladies, the Misses Irwin, redoubtable spinsters, the founders of a private girls’ school; arriving in Wyoming they were lodged in the Cheyenne Club, a very comfortable establishment created by two rich Harvard graduates who had invested in Wyoming land and livestock.

Like Roosevelt—Wister’s lifelong friend, notwithstanding the greatest possible differences in their temperaments—once Wister breathed the clear thin Western air he was immediately intoxicated with it. “This existence is heavenly in its monotony and sweetness.… I’m beginning to be able to feel something of an animal and not a stinking brain alone,” he wrote in his diary. He had a sentimental attraction to a certain kind of virility, the kind which a generation later would reappear in the thinking and in the writing of Ernest Hemingway. Another entry in Wister’s early diary reads: “Killed today the first deer I ever shot at. Hit it plumb in the shoulder and broke its heart.” Lnlike Hemingway, whose adolescent desire to demonstrate his physical abilities accompanied him through his life, Wister was aware of being, and of remaining, an amateur with a gun, an eternal tenderfoot. One of the agreeable things in The Virginian , which is written in the first person singular, is the iecounting of occasions when the Virginian is compelled to take care of Wister, who failed to tether his horse correctly or who left his English shotgun thoughtlessly behind on the ground.

In any event the Western air, liesides sharpening his appetites, crystallized the ambition of his life. He would liecome a writer. He was thirty-one in 1891 when, dining with his friend Walter Fumess in Philadelphia, in the darkpaneled room of the exclusive Philadelphia Club, the fusion of imagination and of purpose occurred. Recalling that evening, he wrote: “Why wasn’t some Kipling saving the sage-brush for American literature, before the sage-brush and all that it signified went the way of the California forty-niner, went the way of the Mississippi steamboat, went the way of everything?… What was fiction doing, fiction, the only thing that has always outlived fact? Must it be perpetual tea-cups?… The claret had been excellent. ‘Walter, I’m going to try it myself!’ I exclaimed.… ‘I’m going to start this minute.’” He wrote his first Western story—“Hank’s Woman”—in the library of the Philadelphia Club that night. It was taken up by Harper’s Magazine’ the check soon arrived at his desk in the law office of his friend Francis Rawle, “where I worked at fiction for twenty-five years and at the law nevermore.”