- Historic Sites
Frederic Remington’s Wild West
April 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 3
Pre-eminent among those recognized as authorities on the West in the iSgo’s were, besides Remington, two writers—Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister. Together they formed a trio of Easterners of good background who had journeyed to the territories for different personal reasons and had been on hand to witness, as Remington remarked, “the living, breathing end of three American centuries of smoke and dust and sweat.” Acquainted with one another privately, they exchanged letters, encouragement, and compliments; publicly they formed an exclusive mutual-admiration society given to endorsing one another’s western products. Nor did they do anything to discourage the popular impression that they not only knew the “real West” but were among its few legitimate interpreters. They acknowledged Francis Parkman as a mentor of sorts but otherwise kept the ranks tightly closed. Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, it would seem, harbored the sum total of the nation’s expertise on things western.
Remington first came into contact with Roosevelt as illustrator for a series of somewhat sentimentalized articles on ranch life in the Dakota Territory that ran in Century magazine in 1888. It was an important commission for Remington at the time, establishing his reputation as the delineator of the cowboy, and he and Roosevelt subsequently kept in touch. “It seems to me that you in your line, and Wister in his, are doing the best work in America today,” Roosevelt observed in a letter in 1895; and two years later he added: “You know you are one of the men who tend to keep alive my hope in America.”
It was also as illustrator that Remington originally became acquainted with Owen Wister. The two met for the first time in Yellowstone Park in September, 1893. and formed an attachment based on mutual interests, mutual prejudices, and the shared conviction Jiat the country in 1893 was going to the dogs and needed a strong infusion of oldfashioned patriotism if it was to be saved. They also saw the possibility of rewarding collaboration, writer and artist, and so quickly did their friendship develop that a year later Eva could tell Wister that he was “one of the few men” her husband “loved” and could not “see too much of.” Though Remington and Wister did maintain a reasonably close relationship for about a decade, it was not always as warm as some have assumed. Both men, after all, were working over the same ground professionally, and Remington tended to be very conscious of his territorial rights. Thus his letters to Wister are a mixture of barbs and bons mots, and he did not hesitate to make his correspondent the butt of his occasionally cutting humor. Yet the two did profit from the association. In his collection of Wister-Remington correspondence Ben Vorpahl has suggested that Wister followed Remington’s guidance in shaping his most famous character, the Virginian, into the ideal western type; and he reciprocated by providing adulatory introductions to three collections of Remington drawings. “Remington,” Wister asserted at the end of one celebrated tribute, “is not merelv an artist; he is a national treasure.”
Remington even had the high satisfaction of receiving an accolade from the old master himself, Francis Parkman, when he was commissioned at Parkman’s request as one who “knew the prairies and the mountains before irresistible commonplace had subdued them” to illustrate the 1892 commemorative edition of The Oregon Trail . It was a gratifying commission, equivalent to a laying on of hands. The next year Parkman was dead, and Remington along with Roosevelt and Wister stood unrivalled among contemporary interpreters of the vanished West. Julian Ralph, writing in Harper’s Weekly in 1895, expressed a common opinion when he observed: We almost forget that we did not always know the little army of rough riders of the plains, the sturdy lumbermen of the forests, the half-breed canoeman, the dare-devil scouts, the be-fringed and be-feathered red man; and all the rest of Remingtoniana that must be collected some day to feast the eye, as Parkman and Roosevelt and Wister satisfy the mind.
The West belonged to these men; it was, for the vast American public, what they said it was or in Remington’s case what he showed it to be. “It is a fact that admits of no question,” one astute critic commented in 1892, “that Eastern people have formed their conceptions of what the FarWestern life is like, more from what they have seen in Mr. Remington’s pictures than from any other source, and if they went to the West or to Mexico they would expect to see men and places looking exactly as Mr. Remington has drawn them.”
Remington’s vision of the West as a man’s domain, providing at once challenge and fulfillment, is perfectly consonant with his lifestyle and his personal philosophy. He was not profound or subtle, but given to a code of values right out of Roosevelt’s “strenuous-life” ethic—politically conservative, frequently racist, always superpatriotic, and convinced that, as Roosevelt said, “it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”