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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Fifteen, in which is presented the third Review of the Slaves of Golconda

One evening, as Owen Wister would have us believe, he and Walter Furness, son of Shakespearean scholar Horace Howard Furness, were dining at the Philadelphia Club when talk turned to life in the West.

"Why isn't someone writing about the heroes of the sage-brush," Furness wondered. "Someone should write about life on the open range, before it disappears altogether."
"I'm going to try it myself!" Wister replied.

By midnight, Wister had written "Hank's Woman," his first cowboy story. Harper's soon bought it, and their request for more had Wister on the path to fame. This was the tall tale the author spun in his seventieth year. In truth, he had already begun writing a story of the west, titled "Chalkeye," which was never completed, and was published thus in 1984.

In a note "To the Reader" from 1902, Wister wrote that upon release of his novel, The Virginian: A Tale of Sundry Adventures, some newspapers called it a historical novel, which Wister took to mean a colonial romance. As his narrative "presents faithfully a day and a generation," it is historical. As it contains many elements later to be the staples of the western genre, such as the chase, the lynching, and the gunfight, it is the grandfather of all westerns. Yet to us, as it describes the courtship of a mysterious, and perhaps dangerous, man and a strong-willed independent woman, it also reads unmistakably as the grandmother of all contemporary romance. Though the tag of romance in the last century meant a pastoral tale more than a love affair fantasy, Wister apparently bristled at the appellation, and changed the subtitle to A Horseman of the Plains.

The novel Wister produced was truly a collection of sundry adventures witnessed and overheard during the years he spent in Wyoming. According to the University of Wyoming, as Wister gathered these stories, a composite character took form in his mind: a Southern born ranch-hand who represented the best qualities of the cowboys Wister saw, as well as the values Wister himself espoused. This character came to be known as The Virginian. Once this character had taken definite shape, and he had accumulated enough material, Wister wove his stories with the unifying thread of a love affair to create his novel. The following passage could be dropped right into the center of a Gena Showalter novel today and no one would notice:
        Molly Wood was regarding him saucily. "I don't think I like you," she said.
        "That's all square enough. You're goin' to love me before we get through. I wish yu'd come a-ridin', ma'am."
        "Dear, dear, dear! So I'm going to love you? How will you do it? I know men think that they only need to sit and look strong and make chests at a girl--"
In the end, of course, Miss Wood
knew her cow-boy lover, with all that he lacked, to be more than ever she could be, with all that she had. He was her worshipper still, but her master, too. Therefore now, against the baffling smile he gave her, she felt powerless.
There is an unevenness to the style which we think is evidence of the way the material was brought together. Some chapters are written in the first person; others are omniscient; still others are in the third person, and sometimes jump from the thoughts of one character to another. The character of Lin McLean comes from Wister's first novel, the sad and terrible drama that has been chronicled elsewhere. There is often coincidental and convenient meetings of characters which strike us as implausible, considering the grand scale and variety of setting in which the scenes occur, larger than the western range itself. The literary map of the novel shown here, from the Library of Congress, provides a good visual understanding of the scope of the novel's setting.

Wister also included some passing social commentary. In his description of Miss Wood, he writes that others spoke poorly of her, because her behavior did not always match their prejudices. In the guise of the narrator, Wister writes, There always have been such people, I suppose, because the world must always have a rubbish heap. Lying is characterised as a worse evil than war. The most powerful passage, and the most difficult for many a modern reader to accept, is Judge Henry's thoughts concerning
certain junctures , crises, when life, like a highwayman, springs upon him, demanding that he stand and deliver his convictions in the name of some righteous cause, bidding him do evil that good may come.
He is working out the way to explain to Miss Wood the actions of the Virginian, who lynched three men for rustling cattle. The Judge makes the following supposition:
I went over to my neighbor's field on Tuesday, after the sign-post [stating that trespassers would be prosecuted by law] was put up, because I saw a murder about to be committed in the field, and therefore ran in and stopped it. Was I doing evil that good might come? Do you not think that to stay out and let the murder be done would have been the evil act in this case? To disobey the sign-post was right; and I trust that you now perceive the same act may wear as many different hues of right or wrong as the rainbow, according to the atmosphere in which it is done.
A more recent and timely example would be the actions of the passengers aboard United flight 93. These people intended to kill certain men, and crash an airplane into the ground, that they may save countless others from death. It was the right and true thing to do. They did not try to negotiate with the men, or make promises of leniency or clemency. They recognised the men were terrorists, and so being they had already foresaken their own lives, making the choice to no longer expect to be treated with civility and humanity by others. As the Judge observes, when ordinary citizens take justice into their own hands, "far from being a defiance of the law, it is an assertion of it--the fundamental assertion of self-governing men, upon whom our whole social fabric is based."

Life in cattle country required rugged individualism and personal responsibility. Though the Virginian carries a gun, and uses it when forced to, he is generally not respected because of it. This is the key difference between an outlaw and a hero: deference to the outlaw is paid solely because of his gun. The Virginian is a born leader, one who can command obedience with a look, as when he confronts Trampas over remarks slanderous to Miss Wood: The eye of a man is the prince of deadly weapons. Of course, the Virginian can also use his gun with deadly accuracy, as in the final showdown with the protagonist, Trampas, when his actions happen abruptly, quickly, and completely devoid of thought or effort--he is all instinct and reaction. But Colin A. Clarke of George Washington University believes the Virginian was not a wholly original character: as a man skilled in frontier ways, who lives by a strict personal code, the Virginian seems fairly descended from James Fenimore Cooper's hero of the Leatherstocking novels, Natty Bumppo.

The popularity of the The Virginian spread, according to Struthers Burt in his Introduction to the Heritage Press edition, with "prairie-fire-like rapidity." The veracity of dialogue, the detailed and honest descriptions of the land, and the thorough accounts of such things as Em'ly the chicken, the winning of the bed, and the trail to Sunk Creek Canon bring the reader right into the story. Burt calls this a daring novel for its time, though when premature obituaries were written for Wister, he was called a "first-rate second-rate writer." Some of the best flavor for the ways of life for the horsemen of the plains is conveyed when the Virginian stops at an "eating palace" for breakfast. The cook is given the following orders: "Brown the wheat!" for pancakes; "White wings! Let 'em fly up and down" for fried eggs cooked both sides; "Draw one in the dark!" for coffee with no milk; "One slaughter in the pan, and let the blood drip!" for a beefsteak rare; "One Missourri and ice" for a glass of water.

Stefanie recently posed some interesting questions, which we will try to address here.

1. There is no doubt that the western has lost some of its appeal. It no longer seems as relevant, no longer seems to move large audiences on some mythic level as it once did. Why? Have the times changed so that the western story is no longer ours? Are there other genres whose themes more accurately capture our world today?

As a boy, I remember sitting up late at night watching old black and white western movies on television. What struck me years later was the much slower pace of those movies. Though there was action, especially in the chase and gunfight, there were no quick cuts or pulsating music to heighten the effects--one simply heard horses' hooves interspersed with guns firing for stretches of five minutes, an eternity in today's films. That same pace can probably be felt in the novels as well. But the real difference in the story seems to be the strict code, the firm values that mark the hero of the western. Today few people live with such a personal code, acting often as if anything goes, and applying theories of relativism to every troublesome situation. Too often it seems as if the only thing folks believe the embezelling CEO did wrong was get caught, because who wouldn't do what he did? The only clear-cut bad guy now is a confirmed Islamic terrorist, and there is debate whether even he should forfeit his life?

2. The Virginian and other westerns are sometimes read as repudiations of the cult of domesticity that dominated American culture in the nineteenth century, and therefore as an assertion of regenerate masculinity over women and femininity. Does The Virginian read that way to you?

Life on the frontier was not like life in the cities. Ranches operated in manner reminiscent of feudalism, and each person had a specific role to play in survival. There was no time for women to be independent or self-assertive. If they did not maintain the house, and cook the food, and bear the children, everyone would suffer the consequences. The Virginian and other westerns reflect that fact.

3. Like Mario Puzo's mafiosi, Wister's Virginian has an archaic sense of honor. Does Wister give us any hint of where that sense comes from? Does the cowboy life itself promote this?

We don't seem to be told where this sense of honor comes from. Perhaps in choosing Virginia, Wister was suggesting a connection to the Founding Fathers, who were believed to have the highest of principles. Perhaps this was simply a way for Wister to glorify his own values. The cowboy life seemed to promote honor no more than it promoted dishonor, thievery, and generally obnoxious conduct.

4. If you were there at the wedding of the Virginian and Molly, would you have predicted a happy marriage? Are they truly suited to each other? What problems would you have foreseen?

The showdown reminded us of the final scene in High Noon, when the woman is leaving, and the gunfighter must face down his challenge in the street. Do the differences in the values and priorities of Miss Wood and the Virginian mean the two are not really suited to a life together? The final chapter of the novel seems designed to answer that very question. To us, though a descriptive and evocative piece of writing, the chapter is but an epilogue which adds almost nothing and wholly detracts from the last two paragraphs of the penultimate chapter. The proof and guarantee of their happiness, we believe, is the most beautiful way they are married; in the words of the Virginian:
"No folks to stare, no fuss, no jokes and ribbons and best bonnets, no public eye nor talkin' of tongues when most yu' want to hear nothing and say nothing. Just the bishop of Wyoming to join us, and not even him after we're once joined."
There is no pressure or expectation; no fantasy; no distraction of alcohol or gifts or dancing; there is a man and a woman requiring only one another to be happy. To that, we raise our glass, and say, "Here's how!"


  1. Impressive research. I like the quote "first-rate second-rate writer." Very apt.

  2. Excellent mining, Jeff. I particularly enjoy that first anecdote.

  3. And the photo of Medicine Bow reminds me of something which I forgot to mention in my post: the chapter titles! Corny, Nancy-Drewish, yet somehow appealing.

    And I agree with Stefanie.

  4. You could well be right about the neighbor's field example. There is a good example of the confusion, when we are never quite sure if the narrator is talking, or how he comes to know the things he describes.

  5. Hopefully I would notice the passage being dropped into one of my books, though I'm making a mental note never to write about cowboys.