I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

The Virginian

Owen Wister

  • Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1929).

Owen Wister’s The Virginian, published in 1902, is set on the frontier of Wyoming. The narrator of the story is an individual from the East. The narrative begins with the narrator’s first impressions of the West and gradually becomes more involved in events surrounding the life of The Virginian, a ranch foreman that the narrator initially meets in the town of Medicine Bow. The narrator focuses on two major relationships in the Virginian’s life. The first is his relationship with his enemy, Trampas. The second relationship revolves around his courting of the schoolteacher, Molly Wood, who is from the East and reluctant to accept the Virginian’s advances. One of the most important moments in the book is the hanging of an admitted cattle rustler, who is a friend of the Virginian’s. The positive and negative aspects of this kind of frontier justice are highlighted by way of the Virginian’s reaction to the hanging and other episodes. The book ends with the marriage of Molly and the Virginian, and the subsequent shootout between Trampas and the Virginian, from which the Virginian prevails.

Like The Last of the Mohicans and other westerns, The Virginian is largely a narrative of dichotomy. Similar to the relationship between Uncas and Magua, the Virginian and Trampas represent the good and the bad of mankind. The Virginian, like Natty Bumppo and Davy Crockett, represents the self-made man of the frontier. He is naturally honest, brave, and gentlemanly, despite not being well-educated in the formal sense. As he states, he found what he could do and he did it. This resourcefulness and determination is rewarded by his gradual increase in rank from worker to foreman to eventual ranch owner. Trampas on the other hand is characterized as a complete coward and trickster, the kind of individual that does not deserve to be trusted in any capacity. Another comparison is made between nature and civilization. The towns in Wister’s Wyoming are seemingly out of place. They are depicted virtually as trash heaps set against the purity of the wilderness, which often offers sanctuary. One gets the feeling that is only the wilderness that surrounds these towns that makes them unique and deciphers them from the civilized excess of the East. They are still “serene above their foulness,” Wister writes. (11) Lastly, there is a clear interaction in the story between East, represented by Molly, and the West. Molly’s relatives in the East often express belief in the stereotypes of the frontier, such as violence and immorality. Two comparisons in the novel stand out. One is between Dr. MacBride and the Virginian; the first being described as gluttonous, rude, and out-of-touch, the most outward signs of being over civilized. While MacBride sports “fat, sedentary calves,” the Virginian is described as being lean like a racehorse. The second instance, which is also a commentary on women, is the comparison of Em’ly, the chicken, to a setter mother, who abandons her pups. The setter, which likely represents the eastern woman, is described as an unnatural and neglectful mother, who forgets the nursery for worldly pleasures. Em’ly, like the stereotypical western woman, is a bit unkempt, more masculine than is desirable, and trots about in an untraditional manner. Yet, Em’ly is still the better mother/woman because she still knows what is important in life.

Having dedicated the novel to Theodore Roosevelt, Wister was most definitely influenced by Roosevelt’s writings, particularly The Winning of the West. Roosevelt’s stress on the frontier community is prominent in The Virginian. The most striking instance of this emphasis is the narrator’s treatment of Medicine Bow. In the story, Medicine Bow takes on the characteristics of an autonomous being. It is personified to the point that it is difficult for the reader to distinguish that Medicine Bow is the community and not another human character. The most provocative section of the novel is the narrator’s discussion of true democracy. There are two classes, according to the narrator, the quality and the equality. By getting rid of the poisonous system of the aristocracy, the narrator (and assumedly Wister) states that the Declaration of Independence finally acknowledge the inequality of man. True democracy and true aristocracy are the same thing. When a nation begins with equal footing, such as in the West, then the best individuals are truly able to shine. I wonder if capitalism played a part in Wister’s democratic utopia, particularly due to his remarks about corporations and unions in the beginning of the book.

Feature Image: An illustration to the novel The Virginian by Owen Wister (1902).

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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