Writers for Conservatives, 74: The First Western
The Virginian, by Owen Wister, is generally regarded as the first Western. There had been Western stories before, most notably Ned Buntline’s dime novels, but those were largely sub-literate and Wister was a fine writer. The Virginian had the classic combination of the strong silent hero in a lengthy competition with an obvious villain, finally ending in a shootout on a town’s main street. Of course, there is a spirited girl to be won, too. What is so interesting about the book (I have read it four times) is its wide range of subjects and superb writing. The Western aspect of the story is always present, even if only in the background, but foreground is often taken up with subjects that seem only tangentially related to the Western theme, until we realize that Wister is painting the broadest possible Western scene.
In the beginning, the narrator gets off a train in Montana at a small town, Medicine Bow, where his host has declared he will meet him, but instead he has sent one of his ranch hands, the Virginian, and here we see Wister’s skill and sensitivity in the way he manages the relations between the two men. The speaker, an educated Easterner quite unused to the West (he will be known for a long time as “the tenderfoot”), tries to be familiar with the Virginian but soon seeing that such forwardness is unwelcome, subsides into a passive role, guided by the Virginian. They eat in the town and plan to sleep there, and that leads to a comic adventure started by the Virginian, in which we gain some insight into the complexity of the Virginian’s character. In any ordinary Western such a maneuver would be highly unlikely. Even to suggest such complexity in a Western hero is unusual. To see it through the eyes of an innocent newcomer is a masterly stroke.
Although much of the book is written in the third person, much is conveyed in the first person by the tenderfoot who makes periodic visits to the West. The first person narration is tricky, requiring strict discipline on the writer’s part, because there is a temptation to express one’s own thoughts in the words of the fictional speaker, always betrayed by smugness. (Louis L’Amour was especially fond of the practice, as in his dreadful Sackett series). Wister handles it very well, never stepping out of the tenderfoot role.
There’s a great confrontation scene when Trampas, dealing cards, says to the Virginian “Your bet, you son of a bitch.” At once the Virginian puts his pistol on the table and says gently, “When you call me that, smile.” Trampas says nothing, essentially backing down, and life goes on in the saloon, leading Wister, as he looks at the men, to voice his deep feelings about the West. Speaking of the men in the saloon:
“Something about them, and the idea of them, smote my American heart. . . . In their flesh our natural passions ran tumultuous, but often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature.”
That’s a major underlying theme of the book, and of any worthy Western.
When they get to the Sunk Creek ranch, the Virginian is delegated to watch over him (he’s always getting lost), not really the most welcome duty, but in this way their acquaintance grows. Meanwhile, the Virginian, coming upon a stage stuck precariously in a river crossing, rescues Miss Molly Wood, the woman hired to teach the Bear Creek school, and sets her on land, keeping her handkerchief in the confusion. Their first meeting, it has a lasting effect on both.
Attention shifts to the Virginian, who has taken two trainloads of cattle to Chicago, and is returning on the train with the crew. The narrator joins him along the way and witnesses the triumph of the Virginian when he manages to best his men (who, rather than returning to the ranch, want to go to a gold rush town), by telling the tallest, most elaborate and funniest of tall tales, beautifully related by the narrator.
Molly, on a horseback ride, discovers the Virginian lying on the ground, wounded by Indians, and with much difficulty she gets him to her cabin, where, with Mrs. Taylor and the doctor, she ministers to his needs. He is a long time recovering his strength, and at one point he receives the long-delayed letter she had written him before he was wounded, refusing his courtship. He determines to give her up, but she won’t let him now, so they are secretly engaged.
Meanwhile the narrative continues. The Virginian is sent to deal with an epidemic of cattle rustling, which results in the lynching of two men, one being the Virginian’s old friend Steve, prominent in that first meeting at Medicine Bow. The Virginian is very upset, and it hangs over him as he and the narrator leave the area. They come upon a track, one horse and two men. They are part of the rustler gang, Trampas and Shorty, and to facilitate his getaway on the horse, Trampas shoots Shorty and rides away.
The final confrontation scene between Trampas and the Virginian is excellently managed. Molly and the Virginian are riding to the town where they will be married when Trampas passes them, and when they reach town, three of his friends warn him. They go to a saloon for a farewell drink and Trampas enters, slanders the Virginian and warns him to be out of town by sundown. The Virginian must face the threat, he cannot run away even as Molly swears she will forsake him. He goes out and of course wins the battle, but Wister again proves his power: here is the whole description:
A wind seemed to blow his sleeve off his arm, and he replied to it, and saw Trampas pitch forward. He saw Trampas raise his aim from the ground and fall again, and lie there this time, still. A little smoke was rising from the pistol on the ground, and he looked at his own, and saw the smoke rising upward
out of it.
“I expect that’s all,” he said aloud.
He returns to the hotel, tells Molly he has killed Trampas (thinking she has renounced him), and she embraces him, saying “Thank God!”
The tension has been maintained to the end. There’s a lot more in the book I haven’t discussed, and I leave you to it. *