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W lS T E R ’S “L IF E A M O N G T H E L O W L Y ” A N D A N G L O C E N T R IS M K e n n e t h A l a n H o v e y Scholars have long agreed that in The Virginian (1902) Owen Wister transformed elements from Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and the late nineteenth-century dime novels Cooper’s works spawned into a for­ mula that created the modem Western. Although The Virginian has not been blamed for all the excesses of the “kitsch Western,” as Leslie Fiedler dubbed its most formulaic imitations, it has been attacked by him and others since the 1960s for prejudicial Anglocentrism (139). Wister has been declared a “white supremacist” (Tompkins 147), his fictional West viewed as offering “justification for the extermination of the Indian” (Fiedler 139; cf. Kaplan 260) and upholding something “akin to a racist version of Jefferson’s Natural Aristocracy” (Cobbs 108), his chief novel read as supporting ethnic “prejudices, including anti-Semitism” (Payne 204), and its hero charged with “deriding the intelligence of Negroes” and not “consider[ing] Indians humans” (White 143). While all these offenses are ascribed directly or indirectly to Wister’s bestseller, even the most ardent critic of his ethnic views is forced to admit that “Wister’s Anglo-Saxon chauvinism is not spelled out in capital letters in The Virginian” (Tompkins 147). The basis for them is, however, spelled out in capitals in his essay “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher” (1895). It is in light of this essay that the novel has been constantly read and found wanting, while the major differences between the two works have been overlooked, so much so that the two have simply been read as one (e.g., Nye 289-90). As Ben Vorpahl has explained, “The Evolution” was originally written to serve as a “credo” to Red Men and White (1895), Wister’s first volume of Western fiction, not to The Virginian (97). This credo, which Wister wrote in close collaboration with Frederic Remington, holds that the American cowboy, like the British peer, inherited from his medieval Anglo-Saxon ancestors a spirit of outdoor independence, a love of “his foster-brother,” the horse, and a “contempt for the foreigner” (604, 608). These traits are opposed, the essay maintains, by those of “Poles or Huns or Russian Jews” or, in other words, the “hordes of encroaching alien vermin, that turn our cities to Babels and our citizenship to a hybrid farce” (604, 603-4). While Indians, who are depicted as cruel Ishmaels, and Mexicans, who are viewed as “small deceitful alien[s],” have been 3 9 6 W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e W in t e r 2 0 0 5 “supplanted” by the “Saxon” cowboy, the essay laments that “the rider among Indians and cattle, the frontiersman, the American who replaces ... the Pathfinder, is now beneath the notice of polite writers” (608, 614, 606). Wister sought to recover the Saxon Pathfinder for a contemporary audience in Red Men and White. In its interlocking tales Native Americans are hostile primitives, Mexican Americans a “basking Southern breed” (179-80), African Americans in the person of one woman of “incoherent mind and simple heart” comic relief (251), and “Saxons” heroes. One tale repeats the central situation of Cooper’s The Prairie (1824), a young and beautiful Spanish American woman from the Southwest distanced from her Anglo-American lover by an inter­ posing other. Wister’s other is a “swarthy” and “irresponsible” Mexican, while the worthy lover is a blue-eyed, yellow-haired cowboy with a golden mustache and a white horse (159). Nothing like this is to be found, however, in The Virginian. Its epony­ mous hero has an indeterminate eye-color and is distinguished by his “swarthy” complexion and black hair (90, 258, 267).1 He is, in fact, so dark that the heroine first describes him as “that black man” (89). The words “Saxon” and “Anglo-Saxon” do not appear in the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 395-419
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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