- Owen Wister and the West by Gary Scharnhorst
Gary Scharnhorst’s new biography of Owen Wister is a welcome addition to Wister scholarship, a full and thorough look at the author’s life and a fine account of the evolution and afterlife of Wister’s 1902 classic, The Virginian. The book is part of the accessible and well-researched Oklahoma Western Biographies series, which aims to provide clear and thoughtful commentary on the lives of influential western figures and their relationship to the West of their time. Biographies in the series, edited by Richard W. Etulain, do not provide endnotes; but as evidenced in Scharnhorst’s volume, they do carry extensive, informative, and thorough listings of both primary and secondary materials in their bibliographic essays. Any scholar looking for additional sources and commentary will find plenty of material to supplement his or her research on Wister.
First and foremost, Owen Wister and the West describes the arc of a life that began in the East, was formed by the West, and eventually ended back East. Born in 1860 in Germantown, Pennsylvania, Wister—like many an easterner who would find a “cure” or an identity in the West—grew up in a family of privilege, attended elite eastern schools, and eventually graduated from Harvard [End Page 107] Law School in 1888. His initial trip to Wyoming, in 1885, was prescribed as a cure for a continuing neurasthenic disorder that, throughout his life, produced anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness. Scharnhorst takes us through Wister’s early fascination with the West, his early experiences there (usually with St. Paul’s or Harvard graduates), and those early years between 1885 and the mid-1890s, the journals and notebooks of which supplied most of the fodder for Wister’s fiction. Scharnhorst chronicles Wister’s travel patterns (Wyoming in the summers and returns to the East in the fall), his emerging career in writing short stories and in publishing contracts, the friendships with Roosevelt and Hemingway, and, especially informative, his professional relations with Harper’s. The profiles and backstory to many of the 1890s tales—“Balaam and Pedro,” “Em’ly,” “Little Big Horn Medicine,” and “Evolution of a Cowpuncher” in particular—give us a clear portrait of the writer’s career and lay the groundwork for Scharnhorst’s account of the evolution of Wister’s 1902 novel.
The volume takes us through Wister’s struggles creating a cohesive novel from previously written stories, especially in the 1897 collection Lin McLean, and on the other side of 1902, walks us through his work putting The Virginian on stage, as well as his struggles over his wife’s death in 1913, the depression and writer’s block that followed, the resurgence of writing beginning in 1923, and the final years, ending with his own death from a cerebral hemorrhage at seventy-five at his summer home in Rhode Island. In taking account of the abovementioned short stories, as well as “Pilgrim on the Gila” (1895), “The Jimmyjohn Boss” (1897), and “Game and Nation” (1900), Scharnhorst is at his best in showing us the evolution of Wister’s career and the developmental, sometimes accidental, events that went into the long creation of The Virginian—a novel, as Scharnhorst remarks, with a remarkably long gestation.
The biography does not shy away from the controversial views that have long marked Wister’s personal and professional life, both in the main chapters as well as the conclusion. Wister’s opinions on the Johnson County War and his friendships with those in the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association reveal a wellborn eastern-bred writer who sided with his class; indeed, as Scharnhorst correctly notes, “social caste is the unspoken theme” of The Virginian [End Page 108] (217). Despite Wister’s allegiance to those in control of cattle and capital, however, Scharnhorst further notes that Wister was not one to get involved; “ever the ameliorist” (60), he avoided personal involvement in the many controversial issues on which he held strong opinions. Where Wister’s views on class and race combined...