by Kung Fu Zu 7/20/17
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.”
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.