I just finished The Virginian, generally considered the first novel about the old West that wasn’t just a bang-bang dime-novel shoot-’em-up.
The book was a gigantic best-seller that has directly or indirectly influenced every Western in print or on screen. It established one Western trope after another:
• It takes place in a tiny town on the edge of the frontier and on the endless, wild prairie surrounding the town.
• The main character, a cowboy, is a Byronic hero on horseback — a strong, silent type. He has a strong moral code but doesn’t get all flowery about it. He’s a natural leader who stands up for justice and integrity — by fighting, when necessary.
• A pretty, young schoolmarm comes to town. She and the hero have a courtship that plays out the differences between her Eastern background (gentility, distinguished breeding, proper education) and his Western ways (informality, familiarity with nature, readiness to face violence).
• The villain, a cattle rustler who’s jealous of the hero, lures him into a climactic shootout.
The book also originated a classic scene between hero and villain during (of course) a poker game in a saloon:
The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. . . . Drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: “When you call me that, SMILE!” . . . .
Silence, like a stroke, fell on the large room. All men present, as if by some magnetic current, had become aware of this crisis. . . .
Then, with equal suddenness and ease, the room came out of its strangeness. Voices and cards, the click of chips, the puff of tobacco, glasses lifted to drink,–this level of smooth relaxation hinted no more plainly of what lay beneath than does the surface tell the depth of the sea.
For Trampas had made his choice. And that choice was not to “draw his steel.”
By the way, the phrase that caused the Virginian to demand a smile was “You son-of-a—.”
The author, Owen Wister — a silver-spoon Philadelphia banker, musician, and lawyer — wrote the book in 1902. I started the book expecting it to be little more than a historical curio. But Wister tells his story well and presents characters who range from intriguing to genuinely moving.
I found certain elements especially interesting.
The style sometimes gets so plain and straightforward that it foreshadows Hemingway. For instance:
The murder had been done from behind. We closed the eyes.
“There was no natural harm in him,” said the Virginian. “But you must do a thing well in this country.”
(A few decades later, Wister and Hemingway would become friends.)
One brief passage, in which the grieving Virginian grieves over having to kill his best friend, seems to hint at a gay subtext:
The tide of emotion was even now whirling him. . . . “Steve and me most always hunted in couples back in them gamesome years,” he explained. And he fell into the elemental talk of sex, such talk as would be an elk’s or tiger’s; and spoken so by him, simply and naturally, as we speak of the seasons, or of death, or of any actuality, it was without offense. It would be offense should I repeat it. Then, abruptly ending these memories of himself and Steve, he went out of the tent, and I heard him dragging a log to the fire. When it had blazed up, there on the tent wall was his shadow and that of the log where he sat with his half-broken heart.
And the book is light on the racism that would scar the Western genre. Wister was a racist in his personal views, but this book doesn’t ridicule Mexicans. It doesn’t include any comical Chinese who can’t speak English well. It doesn’t slur Indians, although the characters sometimes refer to some Indians as dangerous and ready to kill white men.
The book does include a couple of Jewish peddlers but plays them straight rather than as stereotypes. And when it mentions African-Americans, it does so in the context of condemning Southern lynch mobs:
“Judge Henry,” said Molly Wood, also coming straight to the point, “have you come to tell me that you think well of lynching?”
He met her. “Of burning Southern Negroes in public, no. . . .
“I consider the burning a proof that the South is semi-barbarous . . . . We [in Wyoming] do not torture our criminals when we lynch them. We do not invite spectators to enjoy their death agony. We put no such hideous disgrace upon the United States.”
Unfortunately for matters of race, the book’s characters are almost all white. That may have been historically accurate for Wyoming; but today, having no non-white characters seems like an unfair exclusion and a blind spot on the author’s part.
In general, though, I think the book holds up well.