Westerns 101; or, What Owen Wister Gave the World

by cowboylands

Yesterday was Owen Wister’s birthday, the man who almost single-handedly created the Cowboy mythos. He’s both a masterful wordsmith and a cautionary example against using the Cowboy indiscriminately. 

Who the hell is Owen Wister? One of my favorite places on the Wild Western Web for all things Americana, The Library of Congress’s American Memory site describes him succinctly:Robert Vaughan copyright 2008 es

Novelist Owen Wister was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on July 14, 1860. His 1902 novel The Virginian helped create the myth of the American cowboy. Reared and educated on the east coast, Wister first visited the West in 1885. Set in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, The Virginian‘s tender romance between a refined Eastern schoolteacher and a rough-and-tumble cowhand, with its climactic pistol gunfight, introduced themes now standard to the American Western.

Simple. But anyone who has not read the book cannot conceive of the power of the Virginian and Molly, his schoolmarm. Their actions reverberate throughout literature of the West and the silver screen. 

The Virginian’s plot is fairly straightforward: woman meets man/man meets woman; woman conquers man; no, wait–man conquers woman!

We have in this scenario one of the major themes in all Westerns: civilization versus the wildness of the West, played out through a battle of the sexes.*

Owen Wister was a total Dude until he lived a while in Wyoming (the most Cowboy of states, I would argue, for good and bad). He found in the West what he could not find in his rather unhappy relationships with his parents—who either squelched his wish to become a musician (father) or relentlessly criticized him in the interest of helping him become the best he can be (mother). Wyoming allowed him to find himself, to put it in a clichéd sort of way. But he was the one who created that cliché, by moving his personal experience into words on the page. Then he got married, and by all accounts every day was a shootout for Mr. and Mrs. Wister, and more of the sniping kind than the romantic full-frontal confrontation….

The final shootout of The Virginian, Jane Tompkins argues in West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, has a two-fold climax: the Virginian takes on his enemy, and he disobeys the woman whom he loves. (She has told him that she will leave if he goes to battle.**) The enemy soon lies in the dirt, but Molly also flies into his arms. Why, he has succeeded both in becoming an individual by separating himself from this strong female figure, and by still keeping the female in his life! Amazing!

Wister’s life wasn’t quite that nicely wrapped up. (Westerns are part of the romance genre, after all.) He had a difficult relationship with his wife, and he never quite found the “self” he had while he was living alone in the West, just him and the other virile cowpokes.

His world of The Virginian and the successful shootout is just a romance, yet perhaps because its images contain the real frustration he felt, these images literally echo through the century, since 1902 repeated again and again in scripts and books until the real world and real people have taken on tinges of this romantic view.

But caution, caution. The author was doing what all authors do: working out his own fear and rage and love and horror with vivid characters and situations. Those who use the tough Cowboy—stoic, forthright, master of all he surveys—should know that…just perhaps…their motivations might mirror Owen Wister’s. Might they also have a little fear and rage and vulnerability inside?

*In this novel, it is described in a rather elevated tone that is like the ballads of the Court of Love of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Indeed, as mentioned by Jane Tompkins, Wister argued that the cowboy was directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon knights. (What happened to the Spanish knights, guy? And Saladin? And he must have forgotten that all the knightly tales of derring-do came from the mouths of women in the Court of Love, not the uncouth knights the women wanted to civilize.)

**Very un-Eleanor of Aquitaine of her. 


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