Friday, January 24, 2014

The Virginian by Owen Wister

Love, laughter, and law in Wyoming
The Virginian, originally published in 1902, is considered by many to be the first “true” work of literature in the genre of the American Western, as opposed to the popular pulp magazines and dime novels of the late 19th century. Whether such a distinction is accurate or not, this novel is universally considered a classic of its genre, and deservedly so. Though it contains the requisite pistols and horse thieves, this is not, strictly speaking, an action/adventure novel. It has more in common with an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman than a Clint Eastwood movie, but that’s not such a bad thing. Although it contains a healthy dose of romanticized cowboy lore, it is primarily a story of realistic people living and working in the West, not the stoic supermen gunslingers that have come to dominate the Western genre over the past century.

The novel opens with an unnamed narrator disembarking a train at Medicine Bow, Wyoming. This Easterner has taken his first trip out West for the purpose of visiting his friend Judge Henry, who owns a ranch nearby. Upon his arrival he is informed that “nearby” is 263 miles away. His guide for the trip is a tall, dark, handsome young man with a southern accent, referred to only as the Virginian. What follows is a series of humorous fish-out-of-water episodes in which the novice narrator earns the nickname of “the tenderfoot.” A strong bond of friendship is soon formed between these two nameless men. When a pretty school teacher arrives from Vermont, the Virginian falls in love, but, stuck-up with pretensions of Eastern aristocracy, she resists his advances. Meanwhile, the Virginian acquires a nemesis in the form of Trampas, a shifty fellow cowpuncher with whom he continually finds himself at odds. As the novel progresses, the light-hearted tone turns gradually darker as it delves into issues of morality and justice.

Overall, The Virginian is a great Western novel, but it does have its faults. The narrator is more of a hindrance than a help. Even author Owen Wister seems to think so, as he switches indiscriminately between first-person narration and third-person omniscient perspective. There are several truly memorable scenes in this book, but in between such scenes the novel is way too talky. It seems as if every plot point is debated ad nauseam by the characters, both amongst each other and internally. The humorous scenes in the front of the book make for some rough going. There’s an entire chapter about a chicken; another about a liar’s contest. When Wister slips into Mark Twain mode like this, the punchlines of the jokes don’t justify their agonizingly long set-ups. Once the book starts focusing on the romance between the Virginian and the school marm Molly Wood, however, the story improves immensely and keeps getting better as it goes on. While there’s no gratuitous violence, in the book’s latter half the reader does find the sort of two-fisted, life-or-death suspense one has come to expect from a good Western.

Despite being written over a century ago, Wister’s prose is amazingly contemporary. There’s not a trace of antiquated clunkiness in the language. The 21st-century reader will have no trouble engaging with the story or identifying with the characters. Wister’s descriptions of the cowboy life and the natural beauty of the West are vivid and inviting. I’m a frequent visitor to Wyoming, and I enjoyed very much the historic perspective on familiar places as well as just the general atmosphere of cowboy wit that pervades the book. Over the course of the story, the Virginian’s travels take him far afield from Judge Henry’s ranch, but wherever he roams, the reader will find traveling by his side a scenic and satisfying ride.

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