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Owen Wister (1860-1938)

 

American writer whose stories helped to establish the cowboy as an archetypical, individualist hero. Wister and his predecessor James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) created the basic Western myths and themes, which were later popularized by such writers as Zane Grey and Max Brand. But before Wister, Theodore Roosevelt published his book The Winning of the West (1889-1896) to make clear the meaning of the land beyond the Mississippi to the whole country, and Mark Twain and Bret Harte wrote their stories about frontiersmen. In art, Frederik Remington, born and raised in the East, and Charles M. Russell, who worked as a cowboy, contributed to the image of cowboy life. Although Westerns are normally set in the 19th-century, they are not considered simply historical novel, but special kind of moral tales, in which the protagonist, usually male, must defend his personal values of life in a violent confrontation with socially destructive forces.

"He was evidently howling the remarkable strain of yells that the cow-punchers invented as the speech best understood by cows - "Oi-ee, yah, whoop-yah-ye-ee, oooo-oop, oop, oop-oop-oop-oop-yah-hee!" But that gives you no idea of it. Alphabets are worse than photographs. It is not the lungs of every man that can produce these effects, not even from armies, eagles, or mules were such sounds ever heard on earth. The cow-puncher invented them. And when the last cow-puncher is laid to rest (if that, alas! have not already befallen) the yells will be forever gone." (from Lin McLean, 1898)

Owen Wister was born in Germantown, outside Philadelphia, the son of Owen Jones Wister, a physician, and Sarah (Butler) Wister, daughter of the actress Fanny Kemble. His parents were interested in arts, Wister's mother played piano, and the family frequently traveled abroad. Wister attended briefly schools in Switzerland and England, and studied at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire and Harvard University.

After graduating in 1882, Wister studied two years music in Paris but then gave up a musical career, and settled in New York, where he worked as a bank clerk. Due to poor health, Wister spent some time in the West to restore his physical well-being. In 1885, he entered Harvard Law School, graduating three years later. Before devoting himself to a writing, Wister had an office in the Philadelphia law firm of Francis Rawle, but he had no real desire to be a lawyer.

"When ya' call me that, smile!"

Wister had spent summers in the West, and on the basis of these experiences he started to produce Western sketches. The first story, 'Hank's Woman,' appeared in Harper's, and launched his career as a writer. Beginning with his first encounter with Wyoming in 1854, he kept journals and notes, which were published in an edited form in Wister Out West (1958).

In 1891, after a conversation in which the author and Roosevelt discussed the literary potential of his impressions of western life, Wister began writing his stories of America's last internal frontier. These preriminary works eventually led to the novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902), a story about the conflict between wilderness and civilization and the passing of the traditional way of life. Wister, who later characterized his best-selling book as an "expression of American faith", dedicated it originally to Theodore Roosevelt: "Some of these pages you have seen, some you have praised, one stands new-written because you blamed it; and all, my dear critic, beg leave to remind you of their author's changeless admiration."

The story of a modest, quiet cowboy, who is more comfortable with his horse than with other people, gained a huge popularity. Until then, his familar character was generally depicted in comic papers as something like an "ignoramus of the plains", but in The Virginian Wister created a new image of the West and the cowboy that was heroic as well exotic. Wister's bestseller elevated Western fiction from the dime novel to respectability. However, for a modern reader the work can be a disappointment: "The 1902 novel, ancestor of the classic western, turned out to be not only corny and flag-waving but also intolerant and reactionary by today's standards. The story includes sentimental lectures on Americanism that sound like a jingoist speech by Theodore Roosevelt, to whom the book is dedicated." (Herbert Mitgang in The New York Times, December 2, 1989)

Virginian is set in the Wyoming territory during the late 1870s and 1880s. Courageous but mysterious cowboy known only as the 'Virginian' works as a foreman of a Wyoming cattle ranch. His real name is never told. He meets a pretty schoolteacher Molly Wood from Vermont, who goes through a long inner struggle before she is ready to give herself to the stranger. Molly introduces him the works of Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, and Keats. The Virginian is forced to preside over the hanging of his best friend Steve, who has been accused and convicted of cattle rustling. Molly is horrified and Judge Henry, the Virginian's employer, explains her the code of the West. However, their marriage is threatened by Trampas, who also works on the farm. He vows to gun down the Virginian, whose future in now at stake. Being told to leave the town, he struggles between his love and honor – Molly has said that if he shoots Trampas, she will not be his wife. "It is only the great mediocry that goes to law in these personal matters," Wister explained. The climatic gun duel between the two men is probably the first "showdown" in fiction. Trampas fires first but misses and the Virginian kills him in self-defense. At the end the Virginian proves himself capable of taking his place in the community. He marries Molly and rides with her in the mountains.

The Virginian has been filmed several times, but the television series from 1962 to 1969 had little to do with the original dynamics of the story. Trampas (Doug McClure) appears in the series as an impulsive and vigorous cowboy, not a villain. The movie adaptation from 1929 included the first famous exchange of Talkies: Huston (the villain): "You long-legged-sonova – ". Cooper: "If you wanna call me that, smile." Huston: "With a gun in my belly, I always smile." Although the legendary American Western director, John Ford, knew Wister's work, he chose to film Lin McLean (1898), the author's first novel about a young cow-puncher, retitled as A Woman's Fool (1918).

In 1898 Wister married his cousin, Mary Channing; they had six children. Molly, as she was called by her family and friends, was socially active, member of the Philadelphia Board of Education, a founder of the Civic Club of Philadelphia, and defender of women's rights. She died in 1913, after giving birth to her sixth child. Her death was a deep blow to Wister and his novel, Romney, which he had started in 1912, was left unfinished.

Wister's literary success did not inspire him to write more Western novels, although in his short prose Wister developed the genre of cowboy fiction. Several of his stories were illustrated by Frederick Remington. Philosophy 4 (1903), a story about college life at Harvard, was followed by Lady Baltimore (1906), about aristocratic Southerners in Charleston. It has been said that the novel made a hit of the white layered cake described in it. Wister's later major works include Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880-1919 (1930), based on the author's long acquaintance with Roosevelt, a Harvard classmate. Besides novels and histories, Wister wrote books for children. Wister's collected writings were published in 11 volumes in 1928. He died in Kingston, Rhode Island on July 21, 1938.

For further reading: Owen Wister by D. Payne (1985); Owen Wister by J. Cobbs (1984); Owen Wister by R.W. Etulain (1973); The Western by George N. Fenin and William K. Everson (1973); The Eastern Establishmen and the Western Experience by G.E. White (1968); My Father Owen Wister by F.K.W. Stokes (1952); The Six-Gun Mystique by John C. Cawelti (Bowling Green University Popular Press, n.d.) - See also: Other classic western writers: Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, Frederick Marryat - The classical literary roots of Western epic: Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid.

Selected works:

  • The New Swiss Family Robinson: A Tale for Children of All Ages, 1882
  • Dido and Aeneas, 1882 (play)
  • The Dragon of Wantley, 1892  (illustrations by John Stewardson)
  • Red Men and White, 1896 (illustrated by Frederic Remington)
  • Lin McLean, 1898
    - film 1918: A Woman's Fool, dir. by Jack Ford (John Ford), script by George Hively, starring Harry Carey, Betty Schade, Molly Malone
  • The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories, 1900
  • "The Virginian"; a Play in Four Acts by Owen Wister and Kirke La Shelie, 1900
  • Ulysses S. Grant, 1900
  • The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, 1902
    - Virginialainen, tasankojen ratsumies (suom. Sulo-Veikko Pekkola, 1957)
    - films: 1914, dir. by Cecil B. DeMille, adapted by Kirk La Shelle and Owen Wister; 1923, dir. by Tom Forman, adapted by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton; 1929, dir. by Victor Fleming, adapted by Howard Estabrook and Edward E. Paramore Jr.; 1946, dir. by Stuart Gilmore, adapted by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. "Wister's idealization of the Westerner situates the site of American virtue in the West. In a manner suggesting the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Wister views his protagonist as a primal man, often describing him as "natural" or "wild." At the same time, there is an element of Horatio Alger." (John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, in Novels into Film, 1999); 2000 (TV film), dir. by Bill Pullman, starring Bill Pullman, Diana Lane, Dennis Weaver.  TV series 1962-1969, starring James Drury, Doug McClure, Charles Bickford (later Lee J. Cobb). Guest stars included George C. Scott ('The Brazen Bell'), Bette Davis ('The Accomplice'), Charles Bronson ('The Nobility of Kings'), Lee Marvin ('It Tolls for Thee').
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1902 (in American Men of Letters)
  • Done In The Open: Drawings, 1902 (illustrated by Frederick Remington; with an introduction and verses by Owen Wister)
  • Philosophy 4: A Story of Harvard University, 1903
  • Musk-Ox, Bison, Sheep, and Goat, 1904 (by Caspar Whitney, George Bird Grinnell, and Owen Wister)
  • A Journey in Search of Christmas, 1904 (illustrated by Frederic Remington)
  • Benjamin Franklin, 1904 (in English Men of Letters)
  • Lady Baltimore, 1906 (with illustrations by Vernon Howe Bailey and Lester Ralph)
  • The Seven Ages of Washington: A Biography, 1907
  • Mother, 1907 (illustrated by John Rae)
  • How Doth the Simple Spelling Bee, 1907 (with illustrations by F.R. Gruger)
  • Padre Ignacio, 1911
  • Members of the Family, 1911 (with illustrations by H. T. Dunn)
  • The Pentecost of Calamity, 1915
  • Kiss Me! Clairette, Suzette, Yvette, 1919
  • A Straight Deal; or, The Ancient Grudge, 1920
  • Indispensable Information for Infants; or, Easy Entrance to Education, 1921
  • Neighbors Henceforth, 1922
  • Watch Your Thirst: A Dry Opera in Three Acts, 1923 (play; with a pref. by Samuel Johnson, illustrated by George Howe)
  • When the West Was Won, 1926
  • Safe in the Arms of Croesus, 1927
  • The Writings of Owen Wister, 1928 (11 vols.)
  • When West Was West, 1928
  • Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880-1919, 1930
  • The Philadelphia Club, 1834-1934, 1934
  • Two Appreciations of John Jay Chapman, 1934
  • My Father, Owen Wister: and Ten Letters Written by Owen Wister to His Mother During His First Trip to Wyoming in 1885, 1952 (by Fanny Kemble Wister)
  • The Vain, 1958 (play, privately printed, with Kirke La Shelle)
  • Owen Wister Out West: His Journals and Letters , 1958 (edited by Fanny Kemble Wister)
  • The Virginian; a Play in Four Acts, by Owen Wister and Kirke La Shelle, 1958 (with an introd. and notes by N. Orwin Rush)
  • My Dear Wister: The Frederic Remington-Owen Wister Letters, 1972 (edited by Ben Vorphal)
  • The West of Owen Wister: Selected Short Stories, 1972
  • That I May Tell You: lournals and Letters of the Owen Wister Family, 1979 (edited by Fanny Kemble Wister)
  • Owen Wister's West: Selected Articles, 1987 (edited by Robert Murray Davis)
  • Salvation Gap and Other Western Classics, 1999 (illustrated by Frederic Remington; introduction to the Bison Books edition by Richard W. Etulain)
  • Romney: And Other New Works about Philadelphia, 2001 (edited by James A. Butler) 


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