Book Review: The Virginian

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu7/20/17
by Owen Wister  •  For those of a certain age, The Virginian will bring to mind the TV series starring James Drury as the Virginian and Doug McClure as Trampas. Being of that age, I remember the series well, but I did not know it was loosely based on an actual novel. I was not a great fan of the series, but I did not let that stop me from exploring its inspiration.

The novel begins with a young unnamed Easterner sitting on a train as it approaches his destination of Medicine Bow, Wyoming. He has been invited by Judge Henry to visit Henry’s spread, Sunk Creek, and see something of the West. After arriving at the station, the Easterner is doubly disappointed since the judge, who was supposed to meet him, is nowhere to been seen. Even worse the Greenhorn’s trunk was not unloaded from the train. Without belongings, and a stranger in a strange place, the Easterner is somewhat irritated wondering what he will do, when a tall handsome young man with jet black hair says to him, “I reckon I am looking for you, seh.” Thus we are introduced to the Virginian, whose real name we never learn.

The Virginian hands the Easterner, who also remains nameless, a letter from the judge apologizing for his absence and letting him know that the dark haired man is one of his best and can be trusted. Hearing the Sunk Creek spread is over two hundred miles away, he and the Virginian have no choice but to stay in Medicine Bow until the lost trunk shows up.

During this overnight stay, the Greenhorn is introduced to the rawness of Wyoming in the early 1880’s. As he observes the scene, he is somewhat surprised to hear the cowboys addressing each other with curse words. He is shocked when some of them, laughingly, call the Virginian “son-of-a-bitch.” This does not appear to bother the Virginian one jot until, over a card game, one cowpuncher named Trampas says, “Your bet, you son-of-a-bitch” in a tone completely different from that which the other cowboys had been using. Upon hearing this, the Virginian pulls his pistol, and softly speaks those immortal words, “When you call me that, SMILE.” In how many cowboys films have we all heard, “Smile when you say that”?

In this initial scene in Medicine Bow, we have the beginnings of two of the main themes of the book. The first is the growth of a strong friendship between the Greenhorn and the Virginian. The second is the fateful enmity which grows between the Virginian and Trampas. These are intertwined and expanded as the book goes on.

The third theme, which starts a few chapters later, is that of the love between a man and a woman. In this case, the woman is Molly, who comes from a well respected family of Vermont. She has been brought up in a gentile fashion, but clearly does not wish to abide by all the rules which applied to a woman of her place and time. I think she would have made a good Suffragette. In this relationship, there is not only the man and woman story, but there is also a touch of East meets West.

While these three themes are interesting, the over-arching theme is that of a man’s place in a harsh uncivilized place and how one chooses to handle oneself in a world without the thin veneer of polite society.

The book, written in 1902, is considered the first true Western novel. And yet, I would say it is much more than a “Western” novel. No doubt, there is some intense action. But it is more than a “shoot-em-up” take on gun fights and cattle rustling. There is nothing phony about this story.

What the novel is, is a wonderful study of characters; particularly of a type of heroic man. The Virginian is not some cardboard cutout of a cowboy. He is a feeling, thinking and acting human being. A laconic uncomplaining young man, who left home at the age of fourteen and traveled the West until deciding to stay put in Wyoming. He is no fool. At the age of twenty-three, he has learned some of life’s hard lessons, but has not come out bad. He has a code of honor, harsh though it may be. Tough but fair with men, he is the type who would protect women and children. He is the epitome of “still waters run deep.”

If the contents of this book are any indication, Wister was a keen observer of human nature. Through the Virginian and others, he makes a number of very sophisticated remarks in plain language. He also shows how small things such as a glance, a card game, one loosely spoken word can grow to very large, even fateful things, in the future.

An example of Wister’s insight is the beginning of chapter XII, which starts with the following sentence: “There can be no doubt of this: All America is divided into two classes, -the quality and the equality. The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both will be with us until our women bear nothing but kings.”

At another solid observation he makes is one by the Virginian, who when talking about a rather pitiful cowboy and the unfairness of life, says: “It may be that them whose pleasure bring yu’ into this world owes yu’ a living. But that don’t make the world responsible. The world did not beget you. I reckon man helps them that helps themselves. As for the universe, it looks like it did too wholesale a business to turn out an article up to standard every clip”.

There are many more such observations in the book, but it would probably take dozens of pages to do them justice. Much of what they show is that human nature is constant and not much has changed in this regard over the last hundred years.

This is the best book I have read in years. It is honest, does not use tricks and such to keep the reader’s interest. It has some action, but it is basically a study of human nature, specifically the nature of a strong man who tries to be just and honest. He is not a saint, but is of the world. He tries to stay on a straight path and still be a man, not a wimp or coward. He is constantly trying to be better, but remains true to himself and his code while doing so.

A similar novel could be written about the knights of old, but Wyoming would seem to be the perfect canvas for Wister’s masterpiece, “The Virginian.”

Read it.


Kung Fu Zu is a conservative prognosticator who has traveled widely and lived outside the United States. He used to hang out with the Marlboro Man. • (580 views)

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33 Responses to Book Review: The Virginian

  1. Steve Lancaster says:

    I was working on a cattle ranch not far from Missoula for a long summer. My father thought it would be good for me. One of the books that the owner kept on the shelf was the Virginian. Your review brings back many good memories, and some I would rather forget. I agree with the tone and substance of your review.

    Also on the shelf were Shakespeare collected works, all the Louis La’more published to date 1964, and a variety of philosophical works from Aristotle to Sartre. It seems cowboys and retired Marines are not the knuckle draggers the latte sippers think.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Sounds like the ranch owner was a clever man. He gave those who wished to learn the opportunity to do so.

      My brother worked at a riding stable in Estes Park during the summer of 1963 or 1964. My parents also thought it would be good for him. He was the youngest and low man on the totem-pole at the establishment.

      When we visited the stables that summer, I recall seeing him dragging two bales of hay with a steel hook in each hand. He worked his rear-end off. I don’t think he was terribly happy at the time.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Nice that it’s free on Gutenberg. I’ve put it on my Android tablet and it’s in the queue.

  3. Anniel says:

    I read this book more years ago than I care to remember and loved every page. Now I need to reread it and take a more philosophical approach to it. Thanks KFZ.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Annie,

      For some reason, as I read this book, “The Brothers Karamazov” kept coming to mind. That is supposed to be a world classic, but I found it to be less than that. It is supposed to be a wonderful study of character types, but to me the brothers were a lesson in the bizarre. The youngest was so unattached to the world as to be useless. The second was an educated cynic who did and produced nothing and the oldest, of a separate mother, was a vain, emotionally unstable soldier. I won’t go into the other nuts who people the pages of that book.

      I have to admit, that as I read the Brothers, I thought to myself, “If these people represent a cross-section of Russia, then it was no wonder the country was such a cock-up.”

      To my mind, “The Virginian” did a better job at character study and was certainly more authentic in its story.

      Perhaps, as an American and Southern/Westerner i.e. Texan, I simply have more understanding for the American archetype and setting.

      • Tom Riehl Tom Riehl says:

        No, KFZ, you’re simply correct. Western fiction rules. Need I bring up Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, among a billion other illuminating books by him?

      • Steve Lancaster says:

        KFZ,
        Brothers is a difficult book for most Americans, as it deals as most of Dostoyevsky does with the darker side of human nature. However, the more inspiring side is dealt with in Tolstoy, for all its sweep in War and Peace it is overall an inspiring work. The two are brought together in Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. With Zhivago as the Tolstoy model and Komarovsky taking the Dostoyevsky model. In typical Russian fashion neither side wins.

        Also don’t rule out the difficulty of the language, nuances in Russian do not translate well to English. As a stand alone, read the chapter on the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers. Even in translation it is both chilling and remarkably current to today’s political condition.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          We had that chapter in my college English reader. I had read the whole book previously in high school.

          • Steve Lancaster says:

            I was busted in 9th grade reading Brothers and when my English teacher understood that I comprehended the major themes of the book, she freed me from the usual class work. My only task for the entire year was reading a book every two weeks and turning in a book report. It was pure academic heaven. My final was a long conversation after school about what I had read and what she suggested I should read. Sadly, the next three years were mostly consumed with make work. I did not do well.

            It was the following summer that I spent 6 months on a cattle ranch. The one I mentioned above.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              In my case, most of this came from Advanced English, in which we dealt with classical Greek literature (the Orestes and Oedipus cycles and the Odyssey) in one trimester , Russian literature in another, and Indian literature (including some Hermann Hesse) in the third. I read some other works for assigned summer reading.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Also don’t rule out the difficulty of the language, nuances in Russian do not translate well to English

          I am sure that is the case and considered this during and after reading the book. For example, English has only three cases while German has four and Russian has six.

          Often the translations between German and English, languages which have much more in common than Russian and English, do not impart the true gist, atmosphere, etc. of the original. Therefore, I much prefer reading German writings in the original. I am presently reading something by Anna Seghers and something else by Heinrich von Kleist. Unfortunately, I don’t know Russian.

          That being said, I find Dostoyevsky’s writing repellent. At least his subject matter is. I started, “Crime and Punishment” and simply could not finish it.

          Although it has been decades since I read them, I recall Turgenev and Chekhov as being more to my taste.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I’ve read Fathers and Sons and The Cherry Orchard. A fan of Russian literature said that the former was much better liked by non-fans than fans; it reads like Western literature, not Russian.

          • Steve Lancaster says:

            Are you a fan of Hesse. My German is just good enough to know when I am missing something, but Hesse seems to translate well.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              I like Hesse. A month or so back, I read a book of his stories titled, “Diesseits: Erzaehlungen von Hermann Hesse”. I don’t believe it has been translated into English.

              It has been years since I read an English translation of Hesse, but as I recall, Hesse translates pretty well as his language is not overly complicated.

              To my mind, his stories seem to be very personal and deal mostly with the individual, especially with young men who are trying to figure out life, the world and their place in it.

              I believe that is why they are very appealing to people in their late teens through their early thirties.

              Reading them again in my sixties, I find they still focus on things which a thinking young man must deal with, but with experience, I can look back and see how I had to deal with similar things.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                I read Demian and Siddhartha in high school (at the time, I was unaware that the latter was one of Buddha’s name; in fact, Buddha is a character in the book). They both fit your description, and were interesting (though not quite enough for me to read anything more by Hesse).

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Steve,

          Your post made me recall a draft review I did on “The Brothers Karamazov.” I will look for it and ask Brad to publish it, although it is in a rough form. It was written just after finishing the book and gives a clearer view of my thoughts about it.

  4. Anniel says:

    I had read “Crime and Punishment” in English translation and enjoyed the ideas presented. Then while I was studying Russian I bought a copy in the original Language. It was my dream to one day know enough Russian to read it, but I got married, reared five children and the book remained on the shelf – Now I can barely remember any of the Cyrillic alphabet, let alone hope to read in it. I may try the book in English again someday.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      A friend of mine recommended the book for much the same reasons you like it and I got a copy, but never got around to reading it. And since now just about all my books will have to be abandoned, I don’t expect to ever read it. My knowledge of Russian is very small and eclectic and extends only to vocabulary, though I can read probably most of the Cyrillic alphabet (partly because so much of it is identical to Greek characters, or nearly so).

      • Anniel says:

        Timothy,

        I am so sorry you will have to abandon your books. You are so blessed to have an encyclopdic memory and so many books read.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Here is a public domain audiobook of “The Virginia.” You can download by chapter or (depending upon how your browser is set to handle these files) listen via your web browser. You can also find this same recording on YouTube which might be a little more convenient.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Good that you could find this.

          I find the blurb which introduces the audio book to be typical of the nonsense one often reads on Wikipedia, from which the blurb was taken.

          Ostensibly a love story, the novel really revolves around a highly mythologized version of the Johnson County War in 1890’s Wyoming … The novel takes the side of the large ranchers, and depicts the lynchings as frontier justice, meted out by the protagonist, who is a member of a natural aristocracy among men. (from Wikipedia)

          This is wrong on so many levels. Yes there is a love story in the book, but that is only part of what is happening.

          As Wiki says, the Johnson County War took place in the 1890’s (I believe some claim it started in 1889) but the bulk of the Virginian took place in the early to middle 1880’s. There is a mention of how things got very bad later, but the Virginian had foreseen this and had a place to move the cattle out of Wyoming before things got really bad.

          There is a lynching scene, but only one. The Virginian believed he had done right, but was sad that it had to be done. And those who were hanged, had been warned repeatedly to mend their ways. One was even an old friend of the Virginian’s who had wandered off the straight path. And the Virginian had clearly told him what lay in store for him if he didn’t straighten up.

          I doubt whoever wrote that blurb ever read the book.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Call me sexist, but this is really the type of a book that a man should be narrating. I’d bring in Sam Elliott to do the book reading. I couldn’t take this whole book with that woman’s voice. But at least it exists.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              OK you sexist!

              Seriously, I didn’t listen to the audiobook and am surprised to hear that a woman is the reader. This is nonsense.

              I like your suggestion of Sam Elliot. But since the narrator in the book is from the North East, a well spoken yankee might also work.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                How about Tom Selleck? He was born in Michigan. I guess to a Left Coaster, that would be considered fairly Northeast.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                Selleck would work.

                This is a story which deals, mainly, with young men. The Virginian is something like 28-29 years old by the end of the book. (Except for a closing chapter which tells of the future.) And the narrator is younger than the Virginian.

                So I think young voices would work well.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Before picking up this book, Mr. Kung, I decided to finish the Thorndyke’s “Frood” novel. I just hate to leave so much unfinished reading. I can plod through this one.

                But I’m not afraid to start a book — even a supposed classic — and lay it down forever if I’ve given it 50 pages or so. Don Quixote was one “classic” I just couldn’t see the point of. Maybe it gets better.

                But Moby Dick, Les Miserable, even Of Human Bondage . . . by all means, plod through them. These are long novels but generally worth it. But if someone can tell me what all the fuss is about regarding Don Quixote, I’d appreciate it.

                Just feel lucky I didn’t suggest Kevin Costner for the book reading of The Virginian. Good god, even I couldn’t sit through all that monotone.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Sometimes reading a bit further on will let a notable book be readable a second time. The first time I had A Tale of Two Cities in class I made it less than a third of the way, but did read a few later bits. The next year we had it again (different school), and I was able to see how early parts led to the later ones, and finish the book.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                But I’m not afraid to start a book — even a supposed classic — and lay it down forever if I’ve given it 50 pages or so. Don Quixote was one “classic” I just couldn’t see the point of. Maybe it gets better.

                I, more than most, will stick with a book in the hope of discovering some value in it.

                Because of this, I read the first half of “Don Quixote” which is almost forty chapters.

                In the end, I had to put it down and ask myself, “How could anyone say this is the greatest novel in history?”, which is what Allen Bloom claimed.

                Again, perhaps I missed something in translation. But reading about a lunatic who assaults numerous people and his side-kick who pukes and craps in his pants, because of overindulgence, is not my idea of great literature.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                This is surely why, Mr. Kung, book reviews with taste and integrity are so important for those who love to read good books. Yes, surely, we will have different tastes. But I’m glad I didn’t stick with Don Quixote. However, I would love to understand what people saw in it.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      but I got married, reared five children and the book remained on the shelf

      Oh Annie, life always seems to get in the way of our plans. Seems like some of the same things which got in your way also got in the way of mine.

      Luckily, sometimes just making the plans is reward enough. It keeps our eyes on the horizon.

  5. Anniel says:

    KFZ:

    “. . . Sometimes just making plans is reward enough.” That’s a philosophical position I can live with. Thanks.

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