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Hank’s Woman 39 N E A L L A M B E R T Brigham Young University Owen Wister’s “Hank’s Woman” : The Writer and His Comment Owen Wister’s avowed purpose for writing about the West was to save “the sagebrush and all that it signified”1 for future 1Owen Wister, Roosevelt, The Story of a Friendship (New York, 1930), p. 29. generations. Dining at the Philadelphia Club one evening in 1891, Wister asked his friend Walter Furness why some American Kipling wasn’t saving the sagebrush for American literature, before the sage­ brush and all that it signified went the way of the California fortyniner , went the way of the Mississippi steam-boat, went the way of everything? . . . What was fiction doing, fiction, the only thing that has always outlived fact? Must it be perpetual teacups? Was Alkali Ike in the comic papers the one figure which the jejune American imagination, always at full-cock to banter or to brag, could discern in that epic which was being lived at a gallop out in the sagebrush? to hell with teacups and the great American laugh! we two said.2 Then Wister exclaimed to Furness, “Walter, I’m going to try it myself!” He went upstairs to the club library and wrote a good part of “Hank’s Woman,” his first Western tale, that night. What Wister was trying for himself in this attempt was not just the preservation of the cowboy. Indeed had this been his motive, he might better have turned to history. Wister wanted to preserve something more than just the historical fact: he wanted to save that human part of the Western experience which is the special province of literature. “Ibid. 40 Western American Literature Wister tried to explain as much to Henry Mills Alden when he sent “Hank’s Woman” and “How Lin McLean Went East” to Harper’s. In the draft of that initial cover letter, even the crossed out words become significant: This life I am trying to write about [doesn’t] seem to me to have been treated in fiction so far—seriously at least. The cattle era in Wyoming is nearly over, and in the main unchronicled, though its brief existence created a life permeated with eccentricity, brutality, and pathos [sic] not only of most vivid local color, but of singular moral interest. Its influence upon the characters of all grades of men—from Harvard graduates to the vagrants from the slums has been potent [?] and very special. I should say the salient thing it did was to produce in educated and uneducated alike more moral volatility than was ever set loose before.3 We can see from Wister’s letter that “saving the sagebrush” did not mean a simple photographic catalogue of “the way the wild West really was,” nor did it mean that adventure and romance would adequately render the Western experience. What Wister did sense was that only fiction could treat the subjective, yet funda­ mental human problems involved in man’s situation in the West. History could not do it and remain, strictly speaking, history. Only fiction could permanently fix the West that WT ister knew with all that it suggested about us as human beings. As Wister himself said of the West, “it is quite worthy of Tolstoi, or George Eliot, or Dickens. Thackeray wouldn’t do.”4 But recognizing the possibilities for significant literature is one thing; actually writing that literature is something else. And the challenge that Wister accepted that night at the Philadelphia Club was a difficult one. In the first place, he was working almost without literary precedent. The dime novels and pulp magazines were already popularizing the West, but in 1892 few writers had made any serious attempts to explore the real significance of the Western experience. No one yet had shown both the insight and the literary sophistication necessary to do the job. Indeed the problems Wister faced in writing about the horsemen of the plains 8Owen Wister Papers, Box 31, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., unpublished notebook “Miscellaneous Notes Western and Eastern, 1892.” In spite of its title, this is obviously Wister’s workbook for...


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