The Creator of the Western Novel

Natalie Bright

 

Best known as the creator of western fiction, Own Wister was a “Pennsylvanian who sat down in South Carolina, and wrote a book about a Virginian who lived in Wyoming.” I happened upon a copy of his book, THE VIRGINIAN, in a used book store. The opening scene is fantastic, as we meet a rough, sometimes rude, man-of-few-words from Virginia. A “slim young giant” who earns a reputation as an accomplished horseman. The edgy descriptions and literary prose are different from what you might expect in a western, but an enjoyable read.

Born in Philedelphia, July 1860, Wister attended school in Europe, St. Paul’s School in Concord, and entered Harvard as a music student. He made many notable friends, the most famous being Theodore Roosevelt. They shared an enthusiasm for the West.

If was during the summer of 1885 that a doctor prescribed a trip out West for health reasons, both physically and psychologically. Between 1885-1900 Wister traveled 15 times to Wyoming. During that time he began his first of many journals, and also wrote hundreds of letters.

“I don’t wonder,” Wister wrote, “a man never comes back [East] after he has once been here for a few years.”

July 2, First Journal Entry.

In 1902 THE VIRGINIAN was published, dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt. Set in Wyoming between 1874 and 1890, Wister described it as “an expression of American faith” and stressed “rugged individualism”. By 1911 the First Edition had gone through thirty-four printings. In the era of paperbacks, sales reached millions. It has been adapted for the movie screen four times.

The Owen Wister papers are housed in the Library of Congress. The University of Wyoming has the Wister Journals, and Owen Wister letters can also be found in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

 

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