The “western” novels, movies, and television shows are the creators of the American myth of the Wild West. Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey before him both wrote many novels about life in the Old West but before either of them, there was Owen Wister.
Wister wrote the book The Virginian, published in 1902:
Describing the life of a cowboy on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, it was the first true western written, aside from short stories and pulp dime novels. It paved the way for many more westerns by famous authors such as Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and several others.
The “Dime Novels” were influential in many ways, helping to create some of the myths about specific individuals from the Old West. Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, and Kit Carson, for example. The TV movie Purgatory used dime novels as a sub-plot point. But it was Wister writing the full length novel The Virginian who bridged the time from the early pulp of the dime novels to the publishing of westerns as a literary genre. From Wister’s wiki:
He began his literary work in 1891. Wister had spent several summers out in the American West, making his first trip to Wyoming in 1885. Like his friend Teddy Roosevelt, Wister was fascinated with the culture, lore and terrain of the region. On an 1893 visit to Yellowstone, Wister met the western artist Frederic Remington; who remained a lifelong friend. When he started writing, he naturally inclined towards fiction set on the western frontier. Wister’s most famous work remains the 1902 novel The Virginian, the loosely constructed story of a cowboy who is a natural aristocrat, set against a highly mythologized version of the Johnson County War and taking the side of the large land owners. This is widely regarded as being the first cowboy novel and was reprinted fourteen times in eight months. The book was written in the library of The Philadelphia Club, where Wister was a member, and is dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt.
He was a member of several literary societies and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University.
The Virginian has been made into at least four different movies, two silent films and two ‘talkies’ with the latest being from 1946 and starring Joel McCrea in the title role. I remember my folks liking to watch the TV series from the ’60s starring James Drury as the title character along with Doug McClure, and Lee J. Cobb in supporting roles. Bill Pullman starred in a TV movie version from Y2K (with James Drury as a supporting character). As I am sure most people will recognize, the movies and TV shows based on The Virginian do not necessarily follow directly on the various plot points from the book and as always, take liberties including changing the actions of the characters. It has been a while since I read the book but I do remember that the character of Trampas is quite a bit darker in the book than he was in the TV series such that ultimately, Trampas is shot and killed by “The Virginian.”
Wister wrote numerous other novels, non-fiction books, short stories from various genres, and essays on a variety of topics but it is The Virginian which cements his place as an influential author.
Photo from Will Hart licensed under Creative Commons