April/May 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 2
In April of 1902 Owen Wister’s Western novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains was published. It was an immediate hit, selling 50,000 copies within four months and 100,000 within a year. It remained in print for decades. Wister, a lifelong Easterner and the scion of an old Philadelphia family, never wrote another Western. But the success of his novel inspired hundreds of imitators and almost single-handedly established the genre as a mainstay of American entertainment.
Others had written Western fiction before, mostly lurid dime novels and short stories. Wister, an 1882 Harvard graduate, penned a few of the latter himself after spending several months in Wyoming in 1885 to recuperate from a nervous breakdown. Not until The Virginian , however, was the inherent potential for drama of Western frontier life exploited with the inventiveness and literary skill of a talented writer.
The Virginian contains all the elements of a classic Western: the tall, handsome, laconic hero; the spirited, virginal heroine out of a Jane Austen novel; evil rustlers and determined vigilantes; an ultimatum to leave town by sunset; and, of course, the climactic gun battle on a deserted street. Yet there are omissions as well: Surprisingly few Indians appear, though those who do are invariably hostile, and there is no description of cowboys actually working cattle.
The dominant theme throughout is the contrast between Western vigor and Eastern decadence, which can be seen in all areas of life: kindness as opposed to manners; justice as opposed to law; natural religion as opposed to theology; physical labor as opposed to pencil pushing. Running through it all is Wister’s association of the West with the unsullied Anglo-Saxon race and the East with hordes of undesirables.
A century after it was written, The Virginian can be tough going for those unwilling to make allowances. One well-known Western novelist recently confessed to our editors that he had found it “unreadable.” Indeed, the more you know about the real Old West, the harder it is to take seriously. Still, after a slow start, the plot becomes lively enough, and there is no end of vivid scenic descriptions and winsome local color. Love it or hate it, any reader can see how Wister’s melodrama established a genre that, if it no longer dominates large or small screens, remains very much alive in journalistic imagery, political cartoons, and presidential rhetoric.