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N E A L L A M B E R T Brigham Young University Owen Wister’s Virginian: The Genesis Of A Cultural Hero Three months before Owen Wister sat down in the Philadelphia Club library to begin his career as a Western writer, he was camped on the shores of Yellowstone Lake thinking about possible literary projects. I should like this autumn to finish “Chalkeye” and write “Raymond and His Three Lives” and then start on “The Bad Shot.” . . . Then my castle in the air, “The Tenderfoot,” but this I think I shall really do someday.1 Many of these possible projects were never more than vague intentions, but at least two of them became a very important part of Wister’s career. One, “The Tenderfoot,” though never a separate work, did become the focal device for Wister’s view of the West. The other, “Chalkeye,” was perhaps the original idea for the famous unnamed cowboy, the Virginian. An exceptional figure much like the Virginian called Chalkeye appeared briefly in 1891 in Wister’s first piece, “Hank’s Woman.” By 1892 a similar hero was being called the Virginian in “Balaam and Pedro.”2 By 1893, Wister was using the Virginian as his central figure for “Em’ly,”3 and had decided to make his unnamed cowboy a co-protagonist with Lin McLean for a whole novel.4 But before the episodes could be pulled together into one book, the other cowboy, Lin McLean, became less and less satisfactory as a central figure for the Philadelphia author. Lin was too much a Westerner, too much the vernacular hero and thus too subversive to many of Wister’s own values. So as he wrote more and more, Wister shifted more and more from a cowboy who was “one of thousands” to a cowboy who was “one in a thousand,” thus creating aOwen Wister, Owen Wister Out Wests His Journals and Letters, ed. Fanny Kemble Wister (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 125. 2Owen Wister, “Balaam and Pedro,” Harper’s Magazine, LXXXVIII (January, 1894), 293-307. The story was finished in March, 1892. 3Owen Wister, “ Em’ly/' Harper’s Magazine, LXXXVII (November, 1893), 941-948. Owen Wister, Lin McLean (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1928), pp. ix-x. 100 Western American Literature not just a handsome, but a heroic figure who stood above his cattleland colleagues in prowess and perception. But Wister was able to do much more than touch genteel sensi­ bilities. By idealizing his fictional hero, Wister pulled together into one character successful affirmations of essentially contradictory systems of values: that is, the Virginian is both frontiersman and gentleman. With this figure Wister created a cultural symbol that involved both our notions about a beneficent wilderness and our commitment to the values of civilization, and by articulating the important part of his own and his country’s imagination, Wister reached the level of myth. Carrying much of the same significance that makes the earlier Leatherstocking important, the Virginian finally stands as a profound symbol of the national experience in the trans-Mississippi West. But let us see how this all came to be. I Less than five months after he had written “Hank’s Woman,” Wister was hard at work on his third Western story, “Balaam and Pedro.” It is here that the unnamed hero from Virginia first ap­ pears, but already he has most of the attributes of the man who fin­ ally wins Miss Molly Wood: his treatment of animals is exceptional, his decorum in the business of horse trading strictly follows the code; he is a man “much valued by the Judge, [and] much loved by his fellow cowboys.”5 But besides all this he is already a figure of heroic stature and the champion of proper values as his response to the famous eye-gouging incident shows. “Then Balaam was rolled to the ground again by the towering Virginian, in whose brawn and sinew the might of justice was a work.”6 In this cowboy Wister had immediately at hand a figure he could turn to as he became dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the implications of the more vernacular Lin McLean. As Wister turned...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 99-108
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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