- Owen Wister: Chronicler of the West, Gentleman of the East
The subtitle of Payne's excellent biography presents the central contradiction upon which studies of Wister's impact on popular culture have focused. Although Wister created a substantial body of fiction and political writings, his reputation rests almost solely upon the phenomenal success of The Virginian (1902), the novel that made the Western cowboy hero into a crucial American archetype. Yet in many respects Wister is an unlikely subject for such fame: despite his early attraction to the West as panacea, he remained an Easterner of genteel and conservative convictions.
Ironically, when Wister first descended from the train in Wyoming (July, 1885), he was a man seeking a cure (for what Payne, lacking a better word, calls "neurasthenia"). At twenty-five, he was a Harvard graduate disappointed in his hopes for a career in music, a victim of his father's rigid traditionalism, and a "gentleman" in manners and tastes. What Wister made of his frequent visits to the West seems a curious combination of filial disaffection, illness, restlessness—and sudden discovery of the West as human, cultural, and mythic possibility. [End Page 262]
Payne's account of "the American Kipling" is a work of biography, not of literary criticism, and its chief contribution is its careful documentation of a Wister few people know. Payne shows Wister's aspirations (pretensions?) to greatness and his connections with other writers of his day, including Henry James, who initially found Wister "light and slight, both in character and in talent." William Dean Howells became a friend, despite Howells' "leftist" politics and his early advice to the young writer to refrain from submitting his first novel for publication. Characteristically, and with considerable heat, Wister deplored the work of Hamlin Garland and Upton Sinclair; perhaps less characteristically, he later admired the work of the young Ernest Hemingway.
As the twentieth century progressed, Wister found writing fiction more difficult, perhaps as a direct result of his increasing interest in political issues—as might be expected of a close friend to the powerful Theodore Roosevelt. Wister attempted to influence the public through a brief speaking career but was roundly defeated in his run for political office in Philadelphia. His political writings were sometimes misguided, as shown by the controversy following his vicious attack on Woodrow Wilson's neutrality in the war. Published racist and anti-Semitic comments furthered his decline and damaged his reputation as "the writer of The Virginian."
Viewing Wister as "an important American who happened to be a writer," Payne brings a good deal of sympathy—as well as careful research—to his subject. Although the book will hardly alter Wister's reputation, no doubt it will add fuel to the argument that The Virginian, written by an effete Easterner, got the Western novel off on the wrong track. Nevertheless, students of American culture will appreciate the sound scholarship that broadens our understanding of a man who for a historical moment summed up popular American aspirations.