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"The Virginian" established the fictional code of the West.,
on 27 August 2005
Owen Wister's "The Virginian," first published in 1902, is considered by many to exemplify the American Western novel. Wister certainly established the code of the West, and the stereotypical figures of the tough but genteel and courageous cowboy, (the one wearing the white hat and riding the white horse), the spinster schoolmarm from back East, horse rustlers, and the corrupt villain beyond redemption. In fact, the novel contains a scene constituting the first known "shootout" in American literature. Our narrator is an easterner, a man who visits Judge Henry, the Virginian's employer, at his ranch on Sunk Creek fairly frequently. I came to think of him as Mr. Wister himself, who did travel to Wyoming and parts West extensively.
From my perspective, the Virginian, whose true name is never revealed, is anything but a stereotype, although many heroes have been modeled after him. Yes, he is tall dark and handsome. This description is not terribly distinctive or unusual. One could definitely call him the strong silent type, and he does have a marked sense of honor, loyalty and justice. However, born and raised in Virginia before the Civil War, it is realistic to assume he was instilled with the values of a southern gentleman. Although he was not to the manor born, his family was decent and hardworking, and one certainly does not need wealth to live by the Good Book. A war veteran and a longtime wanderer throughout the western territories, he had learned survival skills by his mid-twenties. Loose lips was not a desirable trait if one wanted to live a long and healthy life. I found the Virginian to be a credible character, flawed like all men, but with a clear and unwavering sense of right and wrong. He is a man suited to his environment and to his times, and personifies the rugged individual.
It is important to note the period in which this novel was written to fully enjoy it, just as it is crucial to understand the times and setting in which such authors as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and George Eliot wrote. In "The Virginian," Wister states: "It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal equality of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should henceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, 'Let the best man win, whoever he is.' That is America's word. That is true democracy." Believing this so strongly, is it any wonder that the character of the Virginian was created?
As for Miss Mary Stark Wood of Bennington, Vermont, who calls herself spinster at age 20, she is a woman ahead of her time. Many have been created in Mary's image, but she is the original. Intelligent, independent, adventurous, full of pluck and, yes, pretty, she sets off to teach school in Bear Creek, Wyoming, to get away from family pressure to wed an unwanted suitor, and probably to see more of the world. An acquaintance and correspondent of Miss Wood's, Mrs. Balaam, a Bear Creek resident, wrote and told the young woman of the teaching position. Mary accepts, and as it happens, the Virginian is the first to meet her upon her arrival. He actually rescues her, as the primitive stagecoach she has been traveling in is mired-down in a creek - the driver drunk and quite irresponsible. She is later embarrassed, remembering how tightly she clung to the cowboy, in fright, not out of flirtatiousness. He, however, cannot get her out of his mind. This is so much more than a romance novel, although there is romance aplenty, of both the classical nature and the kind between a man courting a woman.
The Virginian's bete noir is an evil character named Trampas. The two clash throughout the tale until the final showdown. One of the books classic lines has our hero responding to Trampas after a nasty insult, "When you call me that, smile." He is also betrayed by a trusted friend who becomes corrupt out of greed and weakness. Law and order had not arrived in Wyoming Territory and it was up to individuals to maintain a civil society. Mary Wood calls this taking the law into one's own hands, or vigilantism. This issue becomes a bone of contention between herself and the Virginian.
Owen Wister imbues his characters, especially the Virginian and Mary, with a remarkable sense of depth. Their relationship, as well as his relationship with his old friend Steve, are depicted with particular poignancy. The initial reserve between Mary and her suitor is normal for the period. However, the sexual tension between them is palpable. Graphic love scenes are not necessary here. The author does more with a kiss and an embrace than many modern writers accomplish with all their erotica. There is some terrific humor also. I found Emily, the hen, to be one of the most original animals in fiction and absolutely hilarious. Wister's vivid passages describing the Wyoming wilderness are extraordinary, making it easy for one to visualize the gorgeous landscapes. The pace is somewhat slow at times. However, I did not find the narrative at all tedious. Time passed more slowly back then and things took longer to accomplish for obvious reasons. This difference is demonstrated in the way the tale is told.
"The Virginian" was voted by the Western American Writers in 1977 as the greatest western novel of all time. Whether it is or isn't is debatable, but I really enjoyed it. Highly recommend.