- 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
In reality, by the time he finished The Virginian , his vision already had faded, and the success of the book meant little to him. He also broke off from Remington. The portions of The Virginian that were printed in The Saturday Evening Post before the publication of the book included the chapter “Superstition Trail”; in it appeared the last drawing Remington made for a Wister piece. A year later Wister wrote in a private letter about Remington: “He is the most uneven artist I know.…” And Wister’s mind had moved away from the West (and the future) to the Old South (and the past). Now it was there that he would find the last true Americans. He began his most ambitious novel, Lady Baltimore , in the year of The Virginian ’s success; it was published in 1906. “When I walk about the North, I merely meet members of trusts or unions—according to the length of the individual’s purse; when I walk about in Kings Port [Charleston] I meet Americans,” he wrote. Lady Baltimore is full of old families and churchyards; it is suffused with the sense of perdition and decline. Its pessimism is as pervasive as anything written by Herman Melville or Henry Adams.
After Lady Baltimore Wister wrote less and less. Except for one or two family trips he no longer went West. He ran ifor councilman in the Seventh Ward of Philadelphia on a reform ticket and he lost. In 1908 the Wisters moved into his grandmother’s house, Butler Place. There his health broke down again. In 1912 he went in for politics for the last time: he supported Roosevelt on the Bull Moose ticket. Mrs. Wister (she was his second cousin) was not well. She died the next year, leaving Wister with six children. On the first day of 1914 Wister wrote in his diary: “The strange feeling came over me that today I had begun the final volume of my life.”
He had twenty-five more years to live. During World War I he was as stirred as was Roosevelt and argued ferociously for war against Germany; he pleaded, in an eloquent little book ( The Pentecost of Calamity ), for her exemplary punishment. After the war he brooded endlessly about how immigration was destroying the nation. He still went to Europe on occasion, he kept up his correspondence with his old friends, he served on the Board of Overseers of Harvard for a dozen years, he recognized the talent of the young Hemingway (he once sent Hemingway a check for five hundred dollars), he wrote a commemoration of his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, and he composed snatches of an amateur operetta on occasion, but his depression deepened. He eventually settled into the routine of an Old Philadelphian, accepting the directorships of venerable Philadelphia institutions, including the chairmanship of the Green Tree—The Mutual Assurance Company for Insuring Houses from Loss by Fire—the second oldest insurance company in America. He occupied the presidency of the Philadelphia Club, whose centennial history he wrote in 1934. He ended his career as he had begun it: a Philadelphia patrician, serious, thoughtful, and withdrawn. There remains an unfinished manuscript on which the author of The Virginian , the creator of the cowboy legend, worked before his death (he died in 1938). It was to be a book about French wines.