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M A X W E S T B R O O K The University of Texas at Austin Bazarov, Prince Hal, andthe Virginian In Owen Wister’s The Virginian, most of the hero’s literary prefer­ ences are predictable. He does not like the unnamed detective novel Molly loans him because he finds it a pointless contest between the author and the reader.1The Mill on the Floss “ ‘talks too much’” (122). Sir Walter Scott tells a “ ‘right fine story’” (132), but Jane Austen puts him to sleep (301). Two of the Virginian’s literary preferences, however, are not so pre­ dictable. His favorite heroes are a member of the royal family of England and a Russian nihilist. William Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and Ivan Tur­ genev’s Bazarov may seem, at first glance, unlikely choices for America’s paradigmatic cowboy hero. The Virginian’s preferences, however, are as basic to his character as his decision to work for Judge Henry rather than ride as an outlaw with Steve. He finds Prince Hal a “jim-dandy,” and Part I of Henry IV is “ ‘bedrock’” drama (302). The death of Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons has moved him so deeply that he “ ‘pretty near cried’” (122). Examination of the Bazarov and Prince Hal compari­ sons suggests that The Virginian is a literary and political con game. Pre­ sented to readers as the story of a just-plain-folks cowboy hero, the novel is, in actuality, a cynical attack on just plain folks and on anyone foolish enough to believe in the vote and in rule by law. If taken at face value, the Virginian is simply a cowboy hero. He is brave, judicious, responsible, honest, and intelligent. He embodies a patriarchical version of American values in the democratic form of a working cowboy. He begins with nothing and ends with everything—victory over his enemy, conquest of his lady, success in business—and is thus an encour­ agement to all of us who start out poor and dream of glory. If we ordinary 104 Western American Literature men and women could not give Balaam a righteous beating, we would certainly like to; and the vicarious satisfaction of seeing the Virginian beat him half to death gratifies some—depending on the individual reader— more or less conscious desire for primal justice. When the Virginian recalls his experiences in atavism, however, his readers become selective. Those who do not want to hear their cowboy hero say he would like to “ ‘become the water’” and “ ‘become the trees’” (428) simply blink and politely wait for the next act. When the Virginian is reduced almost to tears by the death ofTurgenev’snihilist, when it becomes clear that Wister’s folk hero is actually an aristocrat, a superior person who is proud of his superiority, most readers are courteous enough to silently pick and choose among what has been offered by a much-loved literary hero. To reject the Virginian because he is a male chauvinist with an ideologically-dictated blend of superiority, humility, idealism, and cynicism would seem to be easy; but the memory can be taught to reject any evi­ dence which does not confirm our prejudice. A few million readers simply like this paradigmatic folk hero and refuse to register information which might diminish or corrupt his image. Those who make a living by reading books and close readers in gen­ eral, of course, do not pass over discrepancies or, at least, when problems are discussed they tend to focus, to reconsider. America’s reading public, however, has long admired a supposed hero of democracy who finds his own heroes in the imperialistic son of a usurper, a cynical Russian intellec­ tual, and a boss who believes that the purpose of Christianity is to teach aristocrats a parlor trick they can use to control their inferiors.2 The Virginian’s literary preferences, furthermore, are not—as most readers must assume—innocent diversions, asides Wister put in among the events of the real story. The Virginian is compared to Prince Hal and then to Bazarov in ways that are specific and purposeful. Like Prince Hal, the Virginian is introduced as a hell...


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pp. 103-111
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