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Eastern Wyoming College JO H N D. N E S B IT T Owen Wister’s Achievement in Literary Tradition The works of Owen Wister, primarily Lin McLean (1897) and The Virginian (1902), have earned him the generally conceded rank of father of the twentieth-century Western. These two novels, as is frequently pointed out, were composed ofshort stories that were cut, pasted, rewritten, and assembled into book form. In addition to these two books he pub­ lished four other volumes of western short stories: Red Men and White (1895), The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories (1900), Members of the Family (1911), and When West Was West (1928). Half a dozen of his short stories have been revived in The West of Owen Wister (Uni­ versity of Nebraska Press, 1972) ; and Lin McLean, though currently out of print, is still read by students of the Western. It is The Virginian, how­ ever, by virtue of its immediate success and perennial popularity, for which he is chiefly remembered and evaluated. And Wister’s achievement as a western writer has been dubbed a great failure and a great success, depend­ ing on the interpreter. The accusation offailure usually arises from Wister’sbeing a “Pennsyl­ vanian who sat down in South Carolina, and wrote a book about a Virginian who lived in Wyoming,”1or more generally from his being an Easterner, a Philadelphia lawyer, who presumed to write about the West. Historians and enshriners of the American cowboy criticize The Virginian for being a cowboy novel without cows, a work in which “there is not one 1Philip Durham, “Introduction” to The Virginian (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), p. v. 200 Western American Literature scene set on the range among the cattle.”2 Similarly, Wister’s eastern heritage is criticized in cultural studies of his work. John Seelye writes that “Wister’s West . . . was from the very beginning an extension of eastern attitudes,” and that Wister “knew better than he wrote.”3 Brom Weber is even harsher in his assertion that Wister “finally could deal with the West only by subsuming his doubts in a novel which suppressed them and idylized a vanished West. In effect, Wister’s most successful work was an imaginative and intellectual failure.”4 These critics, along with many others who follow this general line of criticism, take Wister to task for not effectively reconciling his eastern sensibilities with his western experiences and subject matter. This conflict is studied most specifically by two critics who suggest that Wister glossed over the thematic and moral complexities that he created in The Virginian. Bernard DeVoto finds the crux to be in Wister’s capitulation to eastern values and “the Gentlemen’s commercial hegem­ ony.” He sees the lynching of cattle thieves as “murder in the interest of a master class” ; and in the Virginian’s helping to lynch Steve, a former friend turned cattle rustler, he perceives that “property must transcend not only law but friendship too.” It is because of Wister’s moral contrivance, then, that “motive as a component of human behavior . . . makes its final exit from horse opera.” In DeVoto’s eyes, Wister failed to be a “serious novelist.”5 In what is probably the best critical treatment of the eye-gouging scene in The Virginian, Don D. Walker advances the view that Wister’s western fiction “never came to literary maturity.” The crucial issue for Walker is that Wister, whose “moral sensibility was much more sensitive and complex” than his friend Theodore Roosevelt’s, nevertheless bowed to Roosevelt’s suggestion and cleaned up the story.6 DeVoto and Walker share with Weber, Seelye, and Branch the objection that Wister failed by 2Douglas Branch, The Cowboy and His Interpreters (NewYork: Appleton, 1926), p. 198. Wister’s subtitle is A Horseman of the Plains, and from the opening page of the novel the Virginian is represented as a chevalier. His affinity is with horses, not with cows. :i“When West Was Wister,” New Republic, 2 Sept. 1972, pp. 29, 32. 4Review of My Dear Wister and The West of Owen Wister in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 29 (Sept. 1974), 241. 5“Birth of an Art,” Harper’s, 1955; quoted from Western Writing...


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