Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Virginian

Back before there was John Wayne, Louis L'Amour, or Zane Gray, there was The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, by Owen Wister.  This was the novel, first published in 1902, that launched a genre, and remains the archetype of the western.

It has everything--gunfights, cattle rustlers, Indians, card games, and a rough cowboy who falls in love with a proper Eastern lady turned schoolmarm.

I enjoyed it immensely, not only for its place in American literature but as a novel of the west.  Wister, who was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt and Frederic Remington, writes beautifully of the prairies and the mountains, the vistas , the changing climate, and the wide open spaces of Wyoming at the turn of the last century.

His narrator is a greenhorn, fresh off the train from the East, who develops a friendship with the Virginian,  a cowboy who hails from the south and who is never given a name in the book.  The Virginian is a noble savage--one of a large family, he left home at 14 and has been fending for himself for ten years when the novel opens.  He is handsome, skilled in the arts of survival (i.e., he is a quick draw, has a poker face, and can outride and outrope his peers), but more than that, he is a natural aristocrat--honest, courageous, and the friend of the underdog.  He is uneducated but smart and cagey, observant and keeps his own counsel.  He likes to have fun, and is not above playing elaborate practical jokes when the stakes are right.

Enter Miss Molly Stark Wood, from Bennington, Vermont.  Of a poor but good family, eager to support herself and find adventure in the west.  For the cowboy, it is love at first sight when he rescues her from an overturned stagecoach in a raging river.  For the lady, it is a gradual acknowledgement that her heart was lost the moment he rescued her.

One of the best things about the relationship between the Virginian and Molly is his willingness to read the books that matter to her.  He is uneducated and knows that his lack of schooling matters to Molly.  So he asks her for books to read and for the most part reads them and discusses them with her.  The only exception is Austen--he just can't read Austen, but he comes to love and enjoy Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, and his observations on Shakespeare, in particular, are just wonderful.

The book is unabashedly romantic--in a way it is as much a prototype romance as it is a prototype western.  I am so glad I finally read this book--a love story, set in the west, in the 1880s.  Perfect!

This book is part of my Back to the Classics challenge and the TBR Pile challenge.


  1. This is one of the few westerns I've read, but I just loved it!!!

  2. Though I have not read many Westerns, I believe that every genre has books that are important and worthwhile reads. This sounds like one them.