From Camelot To Abilene

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So Wister saw in the cowboy a revival of a specimen from the Middle Ages, and of the Anglo-Saxon race. The cowboy had in him the stuff of the hero. In the late nineteenth century, Wister wrote, the frontier gave the AngloSaxon race a last chance: “The race was once again subjected to battles and darkness, rain and shine, to the fierceness and generosity of the desert. Destiny tried her latest experiment upon the Saxon, and plucking him from the library, the haystack and the gutter, set him upon his horse; then it was that, face to face with the eternal simplicity of death, his modern guise fell away and showed again the medieval man.” The Knight of the Round Table was the ancestor of the cowpuncher: “From the tournament to the round-up! Deprive the Saxon of his horse, and put him to forest-clearing or in a counting-house for a couple of generations and you may pass him without ever seeing that his legs are designed for the gripping of saddles.… So upon land has the horseman his foster-brother, his ally, his playfellow, from the tournament of Camelot to the round-up of Abilene, where he learned quickly what the Mexican vaquero had to teach him.”

This was “the gist of the matter,” Wister wrote, and it was the gist of his vision at that time of his life. The cowboy was the last cavalier. And Remington drew the picture that Wister had put into words.. “The Last Cavalier,” illustrating “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher” in Harper’s , shows an American cowboy, tall and lanky, with a bronzed Anglo-Saxon face and a drooping moustache, emerging to the left of a misty tableau of assembled ancient halberdiers, Templars, Crusaders, Knights of the Roses, and a wistful seventeenth-century Cavalier. It is a historical drawing and yet a period piece: it belongs in the middle of the 1890’s, when Rudyard Kipling and Theodore Roosevelt entertained visions of Anglo-Saxon destiny. It also is the precise pictorialization of the vision Owen Wister possessed, the idea which he would incarnate in The Virginian .

How strange all of this was! For one thing, as late as in the 1880’s, one out of three cowboys in the West was either a Negro or a Mexican. But even stranger than the inaccuracies of the legend was the character of Wister himself. He was a profoundly melancholy man, overcome with bouts of nostalgia and a neurotic pessimism. “There ought to be music for The Last Cavalier,” he wrote Remington. “The Last Cavalier will haunt me forever. He inhabits a Past into which I withdraw and mourn.” On the one hand Wister lifted an imaginary plumed hat and cheered on the new American, the hero of the West, shining with the wind and the sun: “Our first hundred years,” he wrote, “will grow to be only the mythological beginnings in the time to come … it won’t be a century before the West is simply the true America, with thought, type, and life of its own kind.” On the other hand, the prospects for his new gallant aristocracy were dark indeed. “No rood of modern ground is more debased and mongrel with its hordes of encroaching alien vermin, that turn our cities to Babels and our citizenship to a hybrid farce, who degrade our commonwealth from a nation into something half pawn-shop, half broker’s office.”

“Wister saw in the cowboy a revival of a specimen from the Middle Ages.… The cowboy had in him the stuff of the hero.”

This duality marked his mind for many years. Ten years after he first published The Virginian he wrote in a preface for a new edition (dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, “the greatest benefactor we people have known since Lincoln”): “After nigh half-a-century of shirking and evasion, Americans are beginning to look at themselves and their institutions straight.… If this book be anything more than an American story, it is an expression of American faith.” Yet in the same year, in an unpublished and unfinished novel about Philadelphia, he would have his protagonist say, “I’ve been dead for a number of years but I didn’t wish it generally known.” The old American family was destroyed, with “the invasion of the Hun, the Vandal, the Croat and all the rest of the steerage.” “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” “Mediocrity is the only thing we recognize.” “We are limp.”