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N E A L L A M B E R T Brigham Young University Owen Wister’s Lin McLean: The Failure of the Vernacular Hero In 1892 Owen Wister referred to Lin McLean, the narrator and central figure of “Hank’s Woman,” as the man “whom among all cow-punchers I love most.”1 But in 1900 when Wister revised the piece for a volume of collected stories, it was the Virginian who lounged by the campfire and told the tale of Hank and Willomene. Lin turned up in the narrative, but in a minor role and as a com­ pletely changed figure. He was no longer the cowboy whom Wister “loved most.” Somewhere between the first enthusiastic adoption of Lin as his best fictional hero and the abandoning of Lin for the Virginian, Owen Wister came to sense that Lin McLean was incompatible with too many of the elements of life which Wister himself valued. He had tried to use Lin McLean as the hero of a novel. But in develop­ ing this character, in following Lin’s career from “colthood” to maturity, Wister was confronted by the problem of what kind of man Lin was to be. He never really solved this difficulty. And consequently, at least so far as Wister was concerned, Lin McLean failed as a fictional center. He failed because Wister finally could not maintain his original unqualified enthusiasm for all that his character represented. And as Wister came to feel less and less comfortable with the original Lin, he tended to make the West of which Lin was a part, less and less appealing as a place and as a way of life. And along with this, Wister tended towards a qualifica­ tion of Lin’s Westernness. That is, Lin became less ready with the quick answer, more comical in civilized situations, and, finally, less and less a part of the cowboy’s way of life. The result was that Lin, who was supposed to become a man, really became a kind of fictional neuter. He lost the essential and vital elements of frontier life and yet could never acquire the positive elements of civilization. KJwen Wister, “Hank’s Woman,” Harpers Weekly, XXXVI (August 27, 1892), 821. 220 Western American Literature The second of Wister’s first two offerings to Harper's was a clear affirmation of an essentially vernacular West and a clear nega­ tion of the genteel East. “How Lin McLean Went East” tells the story of Lin’s determination to visit his childhood home, Swampscott , Massachusetts, of the events and wanderings that delay his trip, of Lin’s confrontation with the genteel East and his Boston brother, and, finally, of Lin’s return to his sagebrush home. The important part of this story lies in the contrast between the cowboy and the city boy with their different sets of values. The difference between Lin and his Eastern brother is readily dis­ cernible: There they stood—the long brown fellow with the silk handkerchief knotted over his flannel shirt, greeting tremendously the spruce civilian, who had a rope-colored mustache and bore a faint-hearted resemblance to him.2 So that we will appreciate the contrast, Wister is very careful to delineate Frank McLean as the epitome of empty elegance and refinement. He felt that what he had been afraid of was true; and he saw he was being made conspicuous. He saw men and women stare in the station, and he saw them staring as he and his Western brother went through the streets. . . . Frank thought of the refined friends he should have to introduce his brother to; for he had risen with his salary, and now belonged to a small club where the paying-tellers of banks played cards every night, and the head clerk at the Parker House was president. Perhaps he should not have to reveal the cow-puncher to these shining ones. Perhaps the cow-puncher would not stay very long.3 The essential contrast here is between two different ways of responding to a particular human situation. On the one hand, Frank is terribly concerned over conventional appearance and refined opinions, but these notions are based...


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