Posted by: Tom Owen | June 30, 2009

The Virginian (1902) – Owen Wister, SPS 1878

The Virginian, a Horseman of the Plains (adapted from Wikipedia)

The Virginian, both the character and the book, are considered to be first of their kind. The character is seen as the first real cowboy character that has set the standard for the cowboy character stereotype. The book is seen as one of the first great western novels about cowboys.

Biographial Notes
Owen Wister (July 14, 1860 – July 21, 1938) was an American writer and “Father” of western fiction.

Image: Library of Congress.

Image: Library of Congress.

Owen Wister was born on July 14, 1860, in Germantown, a neighborhood within the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He briefly attended schools in Switzerland and Britain, and later studied at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was a classmate of Theodore Roosevelt, an editor of the Harvard Lampoon and a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon (Alpha chapter). Wister graduated from Harvard in 1882.

At first he aspired to a career in music, and spent two years studying at a Paris conservatory. Thereafter, he worked briefly in a bank in New York before studying law, having graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1888. Following this, he practiced with a Philadelphia firm, but was never truly interested in that career. He was interested in politics, however, and was a staunch Theodore Roosevelt backer. In the 1930s, he opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Wister had spent several summers out in the American West, making his first trip to Wyoming in 1885. Like his friend Teddy Roosevelt, Wister was fascinated with the culture, lore and terrain of the region. On an 1893 visit to Yellowstone, Wister met the western artist Frederic Remington; who remained a lifelong friend. When he started writing, he naturally inclined towards fiction set on the western frontier. Wister’s most famous work remains the 1902 novel The Virginian, the loosely constructed story of a cowboy who is a natural aristocrat, set against a highly mythologized version of the Johnson County War and taking the side of the large land owners. This is widely regarded as being the first cowboy novel and was reprinted fourteen times in eight months. The book is dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt.

Just within the western boundary of the Grand Teton National Park, there is a 11,490-foot mountain named Mount Wister named for Owen Wister. There are five films inspired by The Virginian and one television series.


Ostensibly a love story, the novel really revolves around a highly mythologized version of the Johnson County War in 1890s Wyoming. The real Johnson County War was a dispute between large ranchers and smaller operators over cattle theft. The novel takes the side of the large ranchers, and depicts the lynchings as frontier justice, meted out by the protagonist, who is a member of a natural aristocracy among men; this theme of the wilderness as a magnifying glass for humans’ inherent qualities is also found in other fiction of the period, such as Tarzan of the Apes.

Image: Wikipedia.

Image: Wikipedia.

In a central episode, the protagonist participates in the lynching of an admitted cattle thief, who had been his close friend. The lynching is represented as a necessary response to the government’s corruption and lack of action, but the protagonist feels it to be a horrible duty. He is especially stricken by the bravery with which the thief faces his fate, and the heavy burden it places on his heart forms the emotional core of the story. Of course as previously mentioned The Virginian is a love story. In this book the story of the romance between the Virginian and the young eastern school teacher Miss Molly Wood is cleverly woven into the main plot.

Therefore Trampas spoke. “Your bet, you son-of-a–.”
The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: “When you call me that, SMILE.” And he looked at Trampas across the table.
Yes, the voice was gentle. But in my ears it seemed as if somewhere the bell of death was ringing; and silence, …

Available for free from Project Gutenberg at:


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