‘The Virginian, a Horseman of the Plains,’ by Owen Wister

“Is it too far to drive there to-night?” I inquired.

He looked at me in a puzzled manner.

“For this valise,” I explained, “contains all that I immediately need; in fact, I could do without my trunk for a day or two, if it is not convenient to send. So if we could arrive there not too late by starting at once—” I paused.

“It’s two hundred and sixty-three miles,” said the Virginian.

The scene above, (involving lost luggage) near the beginning of Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian, seems to me to foreshadow a major theme of the novel. This is a panorama painted on a canvas a thousand miles wide. The landscape itself is a character in it. It’s a slow book, episodic and discursive, but that’s because everyplace is a long way from everyplace else, and travel takes time. There’s plenty of space in the intervals for serious thought or deep conversation. You get a real sense of the vastness of the Old West.

Built on a series of previously published short stories, some narrated by a character (unnamed, like the archetypal hero) who comes on stage only when needed, The Virginian has traditionally been regarded as the first serious Western novel (though recent critics have advanced the claims of some book nobody ever heard of, written – of course – by a woman).

I read it in high school, but my memories of it were vague. I was mostly surprised at how different it was from the TV show, which was being broadcast in those days (they made Trampas a good guy, for some reason). What I didn’t remember – or was too young to appreciate then – was what a beautiful novel it is (in spite of its antiquated style), nor did I imagine how it would move me.

The Virginian is a young Wyoming cowboy, tall and athletic and handsome. He works for Judge Henry’s ranch out on Sunk Creek. He’s a man of few words (setting the style for cowboy heroes ever since, from Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood). He is a natural man of principle. He has a sly sense of humor, and delights, with his rowdy friends, in practical jokes and taking people in with tall tales. (The tall tales are an interesting plot element. They serve as a nonviolent means of asserting rank in cowboy society – though they might lead to violence in any case.)

When an eastern schoolmarm from a respectable but impoverished family arrives in the area, the Virginian decides from the moment he sees her that he will marry her. She resists, attracted by his appearance and rough chivalry, but repelled by his low birth. His courtship takes years, and is resolved in an unexpected (and somewhat deus ex machina) manner. But win her he does.

The plot conflict centers on the struggle between the ranchers and the rustlers, whose leader is the scoundrel Trampas, who hates the Virginian mostly because he’s the better man, and they both know it. (Historically, the book was inspired by the Johnson County War of the 1880s and ‘90s. In those terms it’s remarkably biased and unjust. The “rustlers” the Virginian despises were actually often small ranchers fighting the high-handed tactics of the big operations. For a fictional treatment from the other side of the fight, check out Shane, by Jack Schaefer).

The final confrontation with the evil Trampas takes place (anticipating High Noon) on the Virginian’s wedding day.

Once that’s out of the way, movie treatments of this book tend to wrap the story up pretty quickly. But Owen Wister (once again) takes his time, bringing the reader along on the Virginian’s and his wife’s honeymoon (discreetly, of course). That section, which could have been anticlimactic, instead consummates (if I can be excused for using that word) the main theme of the whole book, it seems to me.

Because the Virginian and his bride become Adam and Eve in a new Eden – or perhaps Wister (whose opinions on religion, judging by the book, were not very orthodox) had Rousseau’s Noble Savage and the State of Nature in mind. I think he was expounding a vision for America’s future – that the New Man being formed in our wilderness would transform the earth through siring a new, wiser, more natural race of mankind.

Or so it seemed to me.

In any case, I found it deeply moving, even if I didn’t believe it for a minute.

The Virginian is a challenging book for modern readers, accustomed to fast-paced narratives, to tackle. But if you give it a chance, it’s worth it. I rate it very high.

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