Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Virginian by Owen Wister




From my son's history textbook, in a section discussing the tendency of 19th century Americans to romanticize cowboy culture:

Admiring Americans seldom thought about the many dismal aspects of the cowboy's life: the tedium, the loneliness, the physical discomforts, the relatively few opportunities for advancement. Instead, in western novels such as Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902), they romanticized his freedom from traditional social constraints, his affinity with nature, even his supposed propensity for violence. Wister's character—one of the most enduring and popular in all of American literature—was a semi-educated man whose natural decency, courage, and compassion made him a powerful symbol of the supposed virtues of the frontier. But The Virginian was only the most famous (and one of the best) examples of a type of literature that soon swept throughout the United States: novels and stories about the West, and about the lives of cowboys in particular, that appeared in boys' magazines, pulp novels, theater, and even serious literature. The enormous popularity of traveling Wild West Shows spread the cult of the cowboy still further.

The text goes on to connect the ideal of the natural man (earlier typified by James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans) with that of the cowboy and then seques into a section on "The Idea of the Frontier," devoting a paragraph each to Mark Twain, Frederic Remington and Teddy Roosevelt. The Remington and Roosevelt paragraphs bring up Wister's name and the tendency to romanticize the West once again.

It is unsurprising then that Remington's The Cowboy graces the cover of my current copy of The Virginian and to find that Wister dedicated this novel to TR, and in fact, let TR read the manuscript before it was published.

Like Ella, I grew up reading westerns and watching them on TV and the big screen. Between my dad's neverending supply of paperbacks and my uncle Plato's old Zane Grey hardbacks, I never lacked for reading material. I even had a copy of The Virginian when I was much too young to read it; I did gather that the Trampas character in the book had nothing in common with the Doug McClure character on the TV show, which left me disinclined to keep up with the book until I grew into it. I had a bit of a crush going on Doug McClure for awhile. James Drury, the TV Virginian, didn't show enough personality to interest me.

It took until 4th grade for me to shake off the mythic allure of the romanticized cowboy and admit to myself that I'd have to be something else when I grew up—I was the wrong sex, the wrong race, in the wrong century. I'd have to settle on becoming a writer with cowboys as my subject.

Then along came Butch and Sundance, and Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, and I found that I much preferred the guys in the black hats to the Marshall Dillons, the Buck Cannons and Manolito Montoyas to their serious-minded kin, and still later, the lazy Gus McCraes to the industrious Woodrow Calls, especially since these characters were even quicker with a smart-assed comment than they were with their well-oiled guns.

Hey Dad, did you ever think about what a male chauvinist pig John Wayne happens to be?

Subvert the myth. Deconstruct it. Laugh about it. Set your western heroes and anti-heroes in the last frontiers of space. Myths don't die, they merely undergo a metamorphosis.

So what's my verdict on the most famous traditional western of all?


It's rather bland. Much as I enjoyed reading about Em'ly
the hen and how the Virginian gets the better of the
killjoy preacher who comes to the ranch, of how the
fun-loving drifter rises to a position of responsibility
and wins the heart of the woman he's set his sights on,
I don't expect much that happened in this book to
stick with me.

A few random burrs from under my saddle that kept my
ride from being more pleasant than it was:

Wister is way too in love with his character. I grew
weary of hearing about what an outstanding physical
specimen he happened to be and how everyone but
Trampas loved and admired him.

I know hangings are a staple of the genre, but I grew uncomfortable reading the judge's justification of the
practice and how Molly ultimately came to accept this line
of reasoning.

And if the main character is going to hang someone who "deserves" it but still feel bad about it afterwards, it helps if this former friend is someone the reader also has reason to care about (e.g., Jake Spoon in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove) instead of someone who's made a brief appearance at the beginning of the novel and hasn't been alluded to since.

The narrator, a man from back east who develops a friendship with the Virginian, periodically appears privy to information that no one is likely to have ever told him.

The Virginian let the abuse of Shorty's pony go on too long.

"Cyards" for "cards"? Oh, please.

Trampas as a character was a let down. The gunfight with Trampas was a major let down.

I thought the Virginian's choice of an opal as the stone in Molly's wedding ring was intended to alert the reader of problems to come in their marriage (opals are notoriously soft and prone to breaking). But no, once Molly commits and submits to her manly man life is one over-the-top happy-ever-after fairy tale.

Mortals don't usually fare that well in myths or reality.

1 comment:

kbuntsma said...

I'm glad someone shares my disdain for this book. I found it overwrought and much too long for the simple plot it contained. Though it makes interesting statements on the place of men and women within society, eventually they delve back into their gender roles and subvert any earlier statement of looking past gender. Thank you for your derogatory comments on this book, I heartily enjoyed them.