- Reading The Virginian in the New West
It is easy for academics to dismiss Owen Wister's The Virginian. Characterized as the progenitor of the formula western, a cursory examination of Wister's text reveals a "legacy of conquest" that many New Western historians abhor. Glorifying an Anglo-Saxon masculinity that [End Page 753] is powered by ignoring and dominating the other, The Virginian is often read only as a text that establishes the familiar conventions of a genre; as the collection of essays in Reading The Virginian in the New West demonstrates, the novel invites critical attention addressing its complexity and depth.
The most prevailing theme in the collection reveals The Virginian as a work with a "multiplicity of meanings," not "a coherent, harmoniously unified text" (126). And while editors Melody Graulich and Stephen Tatum have chosen a wide range of essays, each seeks to complicate Wister's text and demonstrate how its historical portrayal has limited a more thorough critical evaluation. Early readings correctly identified Wister's preoccupation with creating a hypermasculine hero, but essays like Stephen Tatum's "Pictures (Facing) Words" and William R. Handley's "Wister's Omniscience and Omissions" demonstrate how gender is a performed and fluid negotiation, one in which masculinity is both celebrated and critiqued. For example, Tatum reads the illustrations in the original version of The Virginian as texts that both support and contradict Wister's words; moreover, Tatum's discovery of the author's approval of the drawings shows how Wister was often unsure of his intentions. Handley further illustrates this uncertainty, arguing that Wister created an ending that he found "unsatisfying" (39) in order to present his audience with a national plot he felt was needed.
The multiplicity of meanings in Wister's text allow for the essays in this collection to derive competing conclusions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Louis Owens's and Jennifer S. Tuttle's essays; both discuss the relationship between Native Americans and The Virginian, but while Owens's essay compares the absence of the indigenous population in the text with the historical erasure of that population, Tuttle contends that Wister's protagonist is marked by the traits and qualities of Native Americans. These markings are Wister's attempt, Tuttle claims, to give the nation's racial majority a claim to an indigenous masculinity that will ensure the survival of white manhood.
While both Owens and Tuttle provide historical analysis in their essays, Gary Scharnhorst's "Wister and The Great Railway Strike of 1894" is one of the most compelling examples of the marriage between history and Wister's work. Scharnhorst contradicts earlier critics who have labeled The Virginian as apolitical or neutral, claiming instead how the novel "relates to a specific historical context and simultaneously stages an ideologically loaded version of that history" (113). As do the other contributors, Scharnhorst demonstrates how the text can support multiple interpretations; his essay provides one, but allows and hopes for many more. [End Page 754]
Rather than providing a traditional reading of The Virginian, the collection of essays in Reading The Virginian in the New West reveals a text replete with meaning, a fertile ground for competing analyses. One cannot pass a day without finding The Virginian's legacy in American popular culture, and while that legacy often focuses on the traditional elements of the western genre, Graulich and Tatum's collection allows for the possibility of continued critical evaluations of this text and all western writings.