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From Camelot To Abilene

July 2024
13min read

To Owen Wister, the unlikely inventor of the cowboy legend, the trail rider was a survivor from the Middle Ages – “the last cavalier,” savior of the Anglo-Saxon race

Wister's novel, The Virginian, was an enormous bestseller when published in 1902, and established the legend of the noble cowboy.
Wister's novel, The Virginian, was an enormous bestseller when published in 1902, and established the legend of the noble and courageous cowboy.

We think of the cowboy and of the open range as part and parcel of the American legend that spread eastward from the West during the nineteenth century. Yet the legend had not become national until the early twentieth century, and its principal literary architect was an Easterner to the core. The crucial event in its popular dissemination was The Virginian, a novel written by Owen Wister and published in 1902. Its success was instantaneous, large-scale, and enduring. Within four months it sold fifty thousand copies, and one hundred thousand in a little more than a year; it was reprinted fifteen times within seven months and nineteen times within the following eight years; fifteen more reprintings followed within a quarter of a century. Such different men as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry James praised it. In 1904 The Virginian was made into a play; in 1914 into a silent movie; in 1929 into a talking movie, with the then largely unknown Gary Cooper as the hero and Walter Huston as the villain; the movie launched Cooper’s career.

The Virginian was, thus, an event in the history of American literature—but even more, an event in the history of American imagination. It fixed the framework of the Western story for good, certainly for the better part of the twentieth century: for it was within this frame that most Western stories, whether in print, on screen, or on television, were to be set again and again and again.

The story of The Virginian is simple, and it may be summed up as follows: At the outset the narrator (very obviously Wister himself) meets “a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures.” He is a “cow-boy,” from “old Virginia” (except for one passing instance, we never learn his name), sent to meet the narrator at the railroad and to accompany him to the ranch of the latter’s friend, Judge Henry. Immediately he impresses the narrator with his bearing, his manner of speech, and his courage. There are various incidents demonstrating these characteristics of the Virginian, including—again very early in the story—his first encounter with the villain, Trampas, at the poker table. The Virginian is slow calling a bet. “Your bet, you son-of-a —,” Trampas says. “The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed.” (In the 1929 movie Cooper pushed it into the villain’s stomach.) The Virginian drawls the famous phrase “When you call me that, smile !” Trampas is silent. Then and there their mutual hatred begins. They confront each other several times during the hundreds of pages that follow. All their confrontations are verbal, or they are restricted to certain gestures, until near the end of the book.

Molly Wood appears early in the story, too. She is a pert and independent and intelligent schoolteacher from Bennington, Vermont, who arrived to teach school in Bear Creek, Wyoming. Love occurs, though for awhile she keeps the Virginian at bay. In an early episode the Virginian rescues Molly from drowning; in a later episode she rescues him as he lies wounded in the desert. They are about to be married when the last dramatic encounter with Trampas develops suddenly. There is a saloon scene. Trampas, “courageous with whiskey,” tells the Virginian: “I’ll give you till sundown to leave town.” The Virginian says good-bye to his beloved. He steps out from the hotel. All the town is watching. The sun goes down in the moment when Trampas’ gun flashes. He misses, and the Virginian shoots him dead. Molly flies into his arms. Next day they are married by a bishop; they ride toward the mountains in the sunset; they return to find that Judge Henry has made the Virginian his partner. No happier ending could be imagined.

There are many oddities in this story. For one thing, there is not a single scene in The Virginian of cowboys actually herding cattle. Also, when Wister wrote about the West, the open range was already gone. As Wallace Stegner put it in his preface to My Dear Winter , a collection of the letters exchanged between Wister and Frederic Remington, Wister “acknowledged history in his novel by letting the Virginian take up land, marry, and settle down to the tamed routines of stock-farming. After the last brief flare-up of … wildness and killing, it is Molly Wood, and all she stands for, who wins.… [But] the tame ending that Wister gave him does not, in fact, ‘take.’ In the reader’s imagination the Virginian remains what he was before Molly threw a loop over him. He is as timeless and unchanging as Remington pictured him … and he is so because the national myth-making urge that obscurely guided Wister’s creation demanded that he be so.”

Yet none of these oddities compare to those of the writer who produced them. His vision was intimately involved with the gestation of The Virginian; but his character, and his life, accorded with the Western saga not at all.

The 1929 movie made from Wister's book established Gary Cooper's career.
The 1929 movie made from Wister's book established Gary Cooper's career.

Owen Wister (he never liked his first name: those close to fhim called him “Dan”) was born of an old and distinguished Philadelphia family. The dominant influence in his early life was that of his grandmother, Fanny Kemble, the actress and writer. He was a strange, withdrawn, talented boy, somehow “deficient in animal spirits,” his grandmother once said. He had been to boarding school in Switzerland at an early age; he learned to speak impeccable French. At fifteen he composed an opera with his grandmother. He earned his Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, majoring in music, graduating summa cum laude . He returned to Europe, with a pocketful of introductions. At the age of twenty-two he was in Bayreuth, where he was received by Richard Wagner and by Franz Liszt. He played one of his compositions to Liszt who stood up behind the young American, making suggestions as the piece tinkled on, and then sat down to write a letter to Fanny Kemble: her grandson had “ un talent prononcé ,” a definite talent.

Surely this was auspicious: but trouble was bound to arise. Owen’s father was not pleased with his son’s proposed career in music. The son, deeply affected by his father’s evident unhappiness, relented. He took up a deadly job, arranged by his relatives: computing interest on the balances of depositors, buried in the vaults of the Union Safe Deposit Company in Boston. Two years later he suffered a nervous collapse. He had returned to Philadelphia where he was fortunate enough to be put under the care of a family friend, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who advised the young Wister to go West for a month or so.

This was not as daring a piece of advice as it might seem. During the mid-eighties a number of Easterners, usually the sons of wealthy families, either were sent West by their families or chose themselves to take a sporting trip thereabouts—Theodore Roosevelt, Boies Penrose, Frederic Remington, for example, all contemporaries of Wister. Nor was Wister’s traveling particularly adventurous; he was accompanied by two Philadelphia ladies, the Misses Irwin, redoubtable spinsters, the founders of a private girls’ school; arriving in Wyoming they were lodged in the Cheyenne Club, a very comfortable establishment created by two rich Harvard graduates who had invested in Wyoming land and livestock.

Like Roosevelt—Wister’s lifelong friend, notwithstanding the greatest possible differences in their temperaments—once Wister breathed the clear thin Western air he was immediately intoxicated with it. “This existence is heavenly in its monotony and sweetness.… I’m beginning to be able to feel something of an animal and not a stinking brain alone,” he wrote in his diary. He had a sentimental attraction to a certain kind of virility, the kind which a generation later would reappear in the thinking and in the writing of Ernest Hemingway. Another entry in Wister’s early diary reads: “Killed today the first deer I ever shot at. Hit it plumb in the shoulder and broke its heart.” Lnlike Hemingway, whose adolescent desire to demonstrate his physical abilities accompanied him through his life, Wister was aware of being, and of remaining, an amateur with a gun, an eternal tenderfoot. One of the agreeable things in The Virginian , which is written in the first person singular, is the iecounting of occasions when the Virginian is compelled to take care of Wister, who failed to tether his horse correctly or who left his English shotgun thoughtlessly behind on the ground.

In any event the Western air, liesides sharpening his appetites, crystallized the ambition of his life. He would liecome a writer. He was thirty-one in 1891 when, dining with his friend Walter Fumess in Philadelphia, in the darkpaneled room of the exclusive Philadelphia Club, the fusion of imagination and of purpose occurred. Recalling that evening, he wrote: “Why wasn’t some Kipling saving the sage-brush for American literature, before the sage-brush and all that it signified went the way of the California forty-niner, went the way of the Mississippi steamboat, went the way of everything?… What was fiction doing, fiction, the only thing that has always outlived fact? Must it be perpetual tea-cups?… The claret had been excellent. ‘Walter, I’m going to try it myself!’ I exclaimed.… ‘I’m going to start this minute.’” He wrote his first Western story—“Hank’s Woman”—in the library of the Philadelphia Club that night. It was taken up by Harper’s Magazine’ the check soon arrived at his desk in the law office of his friend Francis Rawle, “where I worked at fiction for twenty-five years and at the law nevermore.”


“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.”

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.”

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.

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