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    There can be no doubt of this : All America is divided into two classes,--the quality and the

    The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it.  Both will be with us until our
    women bear nothing but hangs.

    It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the ETERNAL
    EQUALITY of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little mere
    artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own
    justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man
    should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged
    and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, "Let the best man win, whoever he is." Let the best
    man win! That is America's word. That is true democracy.  And true democracy and true
    aristocracy are one and the same thing. If anybody cannot see this, so much the worse for his
        -Owen Wister, The Virginian

A friend of Theodore Roosevelt, to whom he dedicated this novel, Owen Wister is considered the father of the Western.  The Virginian has been filmed at least five times and was voted the greatest Western of all time.  Even if you've never read the book or seen one of the movies, you're more than likely familiar with the one great line : "When you call me that, smile!"

All of that said, it has not worn as well as some other classic novels.  It's influence, particularly in establishing the idea of a code of the West, is undeniable, but it just doesn't read all that smoothly.  It suffers from several significant flaws : the romance which occupies the center of the novel is both too reserved and too idealized; the author uses a woefully awkward dialect to render the Virginian's speech; and is affected by a too delicate sensibility about the rough justice that is meted out.  This last may well be the product of some Eastern embarrassment over the still wild nature of the West, but it is also a wee bit dandified.  There's a very amusing review at Amazon which claims that this is an unacknowledged gay classic.  I don't know that I'd go that far, but I take the reviewer's point that the true love in the book is between the narrator and the Virginian, and that the schoolmarm is mostly annoying.  Likewise, the narrator betrays a certain squeamishness throughout which at least borders on the effete.

It's still a book worth reading, if for no other reason than that it spawned one of the most popular genres in all of literature and the movies.  There are also several asides in which Wister delineates the rough moral code which would become so familiar in the many Westerns to follow.   But the prospective reader should be prepared for a novel which is showing every year of its age.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Owen Wister (kirjasto)
    -ETEXT : The Virginian : A Horseman Of The Plains (1902)(Project Gutenberg)
    -Owen Wister Review
    -American Literature on the Web : Owen Wister (1860-1938)
    -History of Owen Wister
    -ESSAY : When You Print That, Smile (Edwin McDowell, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Hero of the Day : Owen Wister (Daily Objectivist)
    -ESSAY : Owen Wister (George Alex Windish, Absolute Write)

    -The American West
    -The West and the Frontier in American Culture (from ALA)
    -Westweb: Western History Resources
    -Western Novels and Novelists
    -A Literary History of the American West
    -Roundup Magazine (Western Writers of America)
    -ESSAY: At 100, the Western Still Spurs Scholars: Books and conferences take new looks at the most prominent genre in American culture (PETER MONAGHAN, December 13, 2002, Chronicle of Higher Education)
    -ESSAY : Writers of the Purple Sage (Russell Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Mar 5, 1992 Geoffrey O'Brien: Killing Time, NY Review of Books
       West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns by Jane Tompkins
       Western Films: A Complete Guide by Brian Garfield
       Box-Office Buckaroos: The Cowboy Hero from the Wild West Show to the Silver Screen by Robert Heide and John Gilman
       The BFI Companion to the Western edited by Edward Buscombe
       The Western edited by Phil Hardy