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 best-seller, eventually spawning five films, a successful stage play, and a television series. An instant hit, it sold over 20,000 copies in its first month, a staggering number for the time. It came to sell more than 200,000 thousand copies in the first year and more than a million and a half before Wister’s death. This little classic has never been out of print. Beyond the many works that bear his name, The Virginian has inspired hundreds of stories about the Old West. What made this novel so engaging?
Critics credit The Virginian with establishing the legendary stories of the Old West and the stereotypical characters of the genre. Sergio Leone’s famous leading man had no name, nor is the Virginian’s name ever mentioned. He is a laconic cowboy who lives by his own code and is extremely capable in every endeavor, including fighting, with fists, weapons, or words. The book’s lament over a dying lifestyle has been told endlessly. Like Lonesome Dove character Jake Spoon, the Virginian hangs his friend after he becomes an outlaw. The preparation for the climactic shootout has been repeated countless times.
Can the continued popularity of the book be attributed solely to being the first? There were a lot of dime novels before The Virginian, but they were pretty bad. Wister produced the first literary example of the genre. A new story is a fresh story, and this certainly helped generate notable sales in the early 20th century, but more was involved for decent sales to stretch over a century and for the story to be told in the scenery. in theaters and on television.
There are three qualities that make The Virginian timeless. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water tale, appealing to both genders and realistically portraying life on the frontier.
The narrator, Wister himself, is an inhabitant of the city of Philadelphia, on an adventure in the Wild West. The love interest, a school teacher from the East, cannot understand the Western Code. Even the Virginian is a transplant. Not only is this a new story, but it is told with new eyes, wide open in awe of everything around them. This austere new world is described by people from another part of the planet, a part with civilization, comfortable social norms, and police-enforced order. The Virginian is partly autobiographical, and Wister uses his contemporary diaries 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. The main plot of The Virginian follows classic Western lines, which appeals to men. More importantly, Wister depicts the camaraderie of men in a male-dominated culture. Any man who has played team sports or served in the military will recognize jokes, good-natured banter, displays of athletic prowess, and harsh language—at least those that were involved before women invaded these previously exclusive domains of the men. For men, the world of Virginia feels familiar and comfortable.
Wister also features two storylines that appeal to women. Molly Stark Wood, the heroine of Vermont, struggles in a foreign land and culture. She is from a solid family that prides itself on education and is horrified by random violence and vigilantism. The way she overcomes her fears to discipline her corner of a pristine frontier shows the bravery of a woman rarely found in run-of-the-mill westerns. In most of these minor stories, the women need a brave knight to keep them safe. Molly can handle herself, thank you very much. How she gets along she spices up The Virginian.
Also, 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 his family. The clash of cultures is turned upside down when the Virginian sips tea and jokes with the perplexed Oriental ladies.
Wister wrote fiction, but he experienced the Old West of the 19th century and wrote from his personal experience. Many incidents in the book come from his journals. This gives the story an air of authenticity that is lacking in lesser works. Probably only Mark Twain’s The Virginian and Roughing It give us actual observer descriptions of the Wild West. The lifestyle, implements, and zeitgeist all ring true in both books, albeit a bit 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 centuries-old literary style can make The Virginian a bit difficult, but once you get into the plot, you forget about the more formal style of writing. This is a novel that will still sell in the 22nd century.