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The Virginian, A Classic Western Revisited
“When you call me that, smile.” – The Virginian
The Virginian was published in 1902 by Owen Wister (1860-1938). The novel received critical acclaim and was a major bestseller, eventually spawning five films, a successful play and a television series. An instant success, it sold over 20 thousand copies in the first month, an astonishing number for the time. It went on to sell over 200,000 thousand copies in its first year and over a million and a half before Wister’s death. This minor classic has never been sold out. In addition to the many works that bear his name, The Virginian has inspired hundreds of stories about the Old West. What made this novel so appealing?
Critics credit The Virginian with establishing the legendary Old West storylines and stereotypical characters of the genre. Sergio Leone’s famous protagonist had no name, and the Virginian’s name is never mentioned. He is a laconic cowboy who lives by his own code and is extremely skilled in any undertaking, including fighting—with fists, guns, or words. The book’s lament for a dying way of life has been told ad infinitum. Like the Lonesome Dove character Jake Spoon, the Virginian hangs his friend after he becomes an outlaw. The build-up to the climactic shootout has been repeated countless times.
Can the book’s unbroken popularity be attributed solely to being first? There were plenty of dime novels before The Virginian, but they were pretty sloppy. Wister produced the first literary example of the genre. A new story is a fresh story, and it certainly helped create remarkable sales at the turn of the twentieth century, but more was needed for decent sales to span a century, and for the story could be told on stage, in movie houses and on television.
There are three qualities that make The Virginian timeless. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water tale, it appeals to both sexes, and it realistically depicts life on the frontier.
The narrator, Wister himself, is a city dweller from Philadelphia, on adventures in the Wild West. The love interest, a schoolboy from the East, cannot grasp the code of the West. Even the Virginian is a transplant. Not only is this a fresh tale, but one told by fresh eyes, wide open in awe of everything about them. This stark new world is described by people from another part of the planet – a part with civilization, comfortable social norms and order enforced constable. The Virginian is partly autobiographical, and Wister uses his contemporary journals to inject a sense of wonder into the story. Wister liked the old west, and he makes us, his readers, like it too.
Runaway bestsellers are read by both sexes. Virginian’s primary plot follows classic western lines that appeal to men. More importantly, Wister describes the men’s camaraderie in a male-dominated culture. The jokes, good-natured ribbing, displays of athletic prowess and crude language will be recognized by any man who has played team sports or served in the military—at least those who participated before women invaded these formerly exclusively male domains. For men, the Virginian’s world feels familiar and comfortable.
Wister also presents two plotlines that appeal to women. Molly Stark Wood, the heroine from Vermont, struggles in a foreign land and culture. Coming from a solid family that prides itself on education, she is horrified by random violence and vigilantism. How she overcomes her fear to discipline her corner of a raw frontier shows bravery of a woman rarely encountered in run-of-the-mill westerns. In most of these smaller stories, women need a valiant knight to keep them safe. Molly can handle herself, thank you very much. How she gets out of it adds spice to The Virginian.
In addition, The Virginian is a love story. The hero doesn’t ride off into the sunset, he marries the heroine. And he goes to Vermont to meet her family. The culture clash is turned on its head when the Virginian takes tea and banter with unadorned Eastern ladies.
Wister wrote fiction, but he experienced the nineteenth century Old West and wrote from personal experience. Many incidents in the book came from his diaries. This gives the story an air of authenticity that is lacking in lesser works. Probably only The Virginian and Roughing It, by Mark Twain, give us actual observers’ descriptions of the Wild West. The lifestyles, tools and ethos of the time are true in both books – although slightly exaggerated (again, in both books) for entertainment purposes. When we read historical fiction, realism allows us to live in another time.
The Virginian is more complicated than simply being the first of a breed. It’s a good story, well told, with sophisticated subplots. The century-old literary style can make The Virginian somewhat difficult, but once you get into the plot, you forget about the more formal writing style. This is a novel that will still sell in the 22nd century.
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