Book Report: The Virginian by Owen Wister (1902, 1988)

This book has been credited as being the first Western. Wister wrote it about a bygone era: it’s set 30 years before its publication in 1902, and Wister based it on people he’d known on the plains at the time. Frankly, it’s a series of connected vignettes that chronicle events in Wyoming centered on a young man from Virginia, the protagonist, as he becomes a foreman on a ranch and woos the local schoolmarm. The narrator starts out as a greenhorn under the protection of the Virginian, but on his frequent visits to the region over the course of the years the novel encompasses, he becomes accomplished in his own right in hunting and fishing anyway.

At any rate, the Virginian has to deal with the men on the farm and in the area, including a long-running enmity with a fellow named Trampas who goes from ne’er-do-well to cattle rustler. Eventually, there will be a climactic shootout, of course, but when you remember that this is the first Western novel, you can hopefully appreciate it as not being a cliche.

The language, a sort of self-conscious educated Eastern dialect of the later 19th century applied quite a bit to the landscape of the plains and the eastern Rockies, at times flows nicely over you and at other times distracts the 21st century reader a bit from the story. All in all, though, I liked the book. With this firm grounding, I’m ready, sometime, for the other popular Westerns (Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour). Or maybe some Willa Cather. I own some of them in the self-conscious Readers Digest editions, too.

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2 thoughts on “Book Report: The Virginian by Owen Wister (1902, 1988)

  1. I really liked the Virginian, though I was surprised, from having watched the TV show as a kid, that Trampus & the Virginian didn’t become best buds… Hollywood… surprise!.

    Speaking of surprises and old Western’s, when on vacation a couple years ago, I was determined to avoid all politics and philosophy, but couldn’t quite manage not reading at all, especially on the beach, so when wandering through a Wal-Mart I snatched up a cheap Western from a shelf as we passed by, Louis L’Amour’s “Sackett”… and found I’d run smack dab back into Blackstone & Cicero.

    I try to escape… but they keep pulling me back in!


  2. It is remarkable how old timey fiction from just a couple generations ago grappled with the questions of the ages and alluded to classics when doing so. Almost as if the reading public back then were more educated or something.

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