- 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
“Hank’s Woman” was not the first Western story; but it was the first cowboy story on a certain literary level. Five years before its publication, a popular writer, Prentiss Ingraham, had started a series of cowboy tales. In 1882 Ingraham’s attention had been attracted by a cowboy named (by no means inappropriately) Buck Taylor, at the first Wild West show in North Platte, Nebraska. “Beginning in 1887,” Wallace Stegner has written, “Ingraham immortalized this rodeo cowboy, first in a fictitious biography and then in a series of dime novels. He devised for him some colorful semi-Mexican garb that made him picturesque, and he endowed him with all the skill, courage, and masculine grace that have marked every heroic expression of the folk mind from Leatherstocking to Superman.” This picturesque factor was of course, an essential element in the popular crystallization of the image—no more so in Ingraham’s work than in Wister’s. The evolution of photography, manifest in the reproduction of pictures and drawings in popular newspapers and magazines, and the novel popularity of comic strips (and soon that of moving pictures) showed that the American popular imagination was beginning to depend on the pictorial, as much as on the literary, element. The meeting of Owen Wister with Frederic Remington was thus providential. Remington was as much an Easterner as was Wister; as a matter of fact, Remington must have looked very odd on a horse—he was an urban character, immensely fat, pale, and bald. Wister and Remington met in 1892 at a comfortable inn in Yellowstone Park. Their collaboration and their friendship began immediately. In the historical evolution of the Western legend their creations were inseparable.
They were different human types, and eventually their friendship would wane (the difficult person in their relationship was Wister); their interests, too, were focused differently—Remington was interested in realistic particulars, Wister was interested in types of character. Yet they shared something that was very important. Both had a vision, not merely of the West, but of the American role in the evolving history of the world. In this respect Wister and Remington’s vision accorded perfectly with Theodore Roosevelt’s. It was the vision that propagated the legend and not the reverse. In Remington’s first significant article, “Horses of the Plains,” in the magazine Century in 1889, he had drawn the American bronc, “the barb,” explaining (at the risk of certain historical and biological inaccuracies) that “the barb” had come from Barbary with the Spanish conquistadors. In 1894 Theodore Roosevelt wrote his first essay on “Americanism” in Forum magazine, the gist of which was that an American type had arisen, which was national, not cosmopolitan. In 1895 Wister wrote in “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher” that such an American type was “no product of the frontier, but just the original kernel of the nut with the shell broken. This bottom bond of race unified the divers young men, who came riding from various points of the compass, speaking university and gutter English simultaneously, and as the Knights of Camelot prized their armor and were particular about their swords, so these dusty successors had an extreme pride of equipment, and put aside their jeans and New York suits for the tribal dress.” “To survive in the clean cattle country,” he also wrote, “requires spirit of adventure, courage, and self-sufficiency; you will not find many Poles or Huns or Russian Jews in that district; it stands as yet untainted by the benevolence of Baron Hirsch. Even in the cattle country the respectable Swedes settle chiefly to farming, and are seldom horsemen. The community of which the aristocrat appropriately made one speaks English. The Frenchman today is seen at his best inside a house; he can paint and he can play comedy, but he seldom climbs a new mountain. The Italian has forgotten Columbus, and sells fruit. Among the Spaniards and the Portuguese no Cortez or Magellan is found today. Except in Prussia the Teuton is too often a tame, slippered animal, with his pedantic mind swaddled in a dressing-gown. But the Anglo-Saxon is still forever homesick for outof-doors.” Seven years later he would write at the onset of The Virginian , immediately after his narrator’s first encounter with his hero: “Here in flesh and blood was a truth which I had long believed in words, but never met before. The creature we call a gentleman lies deep in the hearts of thousands that arrive born without a chance to master the outward graces of the type.”