I’m afraid I’m unpardonably late for the Slaves of Golconda’s discussion of Owen Wister’s The Virginian: Horseman of the Plains. However I have managed to get through it (as the Virginian would say) and will say a few words about it. The Virginian is a portrait of an exceptional cowboy, a proverbial diamond in the rough, whose coarse language and lifestyle belie his natural sense of gentlemanly honour and his mastery of life and men. But I believe it is also a portrait of the idealized America of boundless opportunity, where, as it is said, any boy (at least) can grow up to be President.
Wister expounds his feelings on class and competition directly in his “The Game and the Nation” chapters and indirectly through the romance between the Virginian and the high born Molly Stark. Neither the Narrator nor the Virginian believe that all men are created equal, only that in America all men have “equal liberty” to play the poker of life and rise or fall to the level of their “quality.” He calls this “true aristocracy.” The Virginian is most certainly a social climber for marrying Molly, but to Wister he is merely taking a wife of the same “quality,” regardless of Eastern notions of class and worth.
Wister also seems to admire the ethic of non-interference in others’ affairs. It’s every man (and horse) for himself out West. Only in extreme cases does the Virginian get involved, but mostly he just watches (or goes on pining for Molly) while man and beast suffer their fates at the hands of evil men. The SPCA and the welfare department would be most unwelcome in Wister’s Wyoming. On the other hand, when Molly has found out about the lynching of the cattle rustlers, Wister has a federal court judge explain to her why men must sometimes take the law into their own hands and deal out “justice” at the end of a noose. It seems that where economic interests are at stake, interference becomes a community obligation.
The high point of the cowboy code, if it’s placement in the book is any indication, is a man’s defense of his good name. The sunset showdown might seem honourable if it were not so very common. Every culture has a similar honour code somewhere in its past (or present), but those societies we call civilized have developed less violent and more ritualized ways of settling the score. However Wister idealizes the return to pagan ways. I use that word deliberately, since Wister deliberately brought in the Bishop at the last minute to represent Christianity’s (supposed) impotence in the face of conflict. The Virginian has no use for God, the Prince of Peace, nor the Final Judgment; the only judgment he fears is that of his peers, and with no god to defend him, he must do it himself.
Then there’s Molly. Her whole purpose, apart from representing aristocracy at odds with democracy, seems to be to demonstrate that men love a challenge and women really just want to be told what to do. The fact that she is spirited only means that she needs a spirited husband to master her. Naturally I find this, and Wister’s many little insults to women throughout the book, quite detestable. The Virginian may have been gallant towards women, but Wister certainly was not.
I am no literary critic, but even I can tell that this book is no masterpiece. The use of the narrator is clumsy at times and the bits of exposition are out of place and probably unnecessary to make Wister’s point. The characters seem rather wooden and remote, reminding me of Westworld. Even the Virginian, who displays the greatest range of emotions and whose actions we see the most of, still doesn’t seem to me like a flesh and blood person. It is certainly a diverting story, with some philosophical notions that might be of interest to America-watchers, but it’s real value is as the root of the Western genre of books and movies. For that reason alone it is worth reading, though perhaps only once.
For your musical enjoyment, the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
By the way, I’m glad I’m not the only one who sensed something queer about the narrator’s admiration for the Virginian. It’s hard to be objective after Brokeback Mountain… Maybe that quote I mentioned earlier was deliberate.