Owen Wister’s The Virginian is published by Macmillan Press. It was the first “serious” Western and one of the most influential in the genre.
Almost single-handedly, The Virginian turned the American cowboy into a legendary hero. At first glance, author Owen Wister seems an unlikely candidate for having authored a book celebrating the hyper-masculine and independent knight of the open range. Born into a prominent Philadelphia family, the young Wister was expected to grow up to become a refined gentleman, not the chronicler of rough-and-ready cow handlers. He went to school in Switzerland and England, contributed to a poetry magazine, sang in choir, and eventually decided to become a classical composer. After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard in 1882, it seemed that he would certainly join the elite musical society of the northeast.
Wister’s musical career stalled, however, when he began to suffer from a vague disease that robbed him of his energy and spirit. On the advice of his close friend Theodore Roosevelt, who had found the West to be a tonic for all manner of ills, Wister decided to spend the summer of 1885 on a Wyoming ranch. There he discovered a rugged and romantic world that imbued him with new hope and spirit. He pronounced the air “delicious. As if it had never been in anyone’s lungs before.” He passed the summer fishing, riding, bathing in creeks, and sleeping in tents.
After returning to the east and taking up law, Wister never forgot his magical experiences in the Wild West, and he continued to revisit Wyoming regularly for vacations. In 1891, just returned to Philadelphia from the glories of the West, Wister was determined to begin writing about the land he so admired. He later wrote that he wished to save “the sage-brush for American literature, before the sage-brush and all that it signified went the way of the California forty-niner.”
After honing his craft with a number of short stories and lesser books, Wister began work on his masterpiece, The Virginian, which was published on this day in 1902. The story of a cowhand who is simply called “the Virginian,” the book established many of the basic elements of the cowboy myth. The Virginian is a tall, lean young man. He enjoys a good practical joke and an occasional fight, but he is innately intelligent and honorable, a natural nobleman of the prairie.
The book became a sensation almost overnight, selling more than 1.5 million copies by 1938 and inspiring four movies and a Broadway play. After The Virginian, Wister wrote no more Western novels, though he did publish a collection of some of his early western stories. The great novelist of the American West spent the remainder of his life in the East. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his summer home in Rhode Island in 1938.