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The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902)

by Owen Wister

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,759306,701 (3.8)1 / 152
The Virginian (1902) is Owen Wister's classic popular romance, and the most significant shaping influence on cowboy fiction. Its narrator, fresh from the East, encounters in Wyoming cattle country a strange, seductive and often violent land where the handsome figure of the Virginian battlesfor supremacy with Trampas and other ne'er-do-wells. His courtship of the genteel Vermont schoolteacher, Molly Wood, is a humourously observed battle of the sexes, demonstrating that the 'customs of the country' must eventually prevail. Rich in vernacular wit and portraying a romanticized escapefrom the decorum of the patrician East, The Virginian exudes a sense of redemptive possibility, drawing on Wister's experience of a summer spent on a Wyoming ranch in 1895.This edition includes Wister's neglected essay, `The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher' (1895), a revealing companion to a novel that has disturbing undercurrents.… (more)

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"… the romance of American adventure had drawn them all alike to this great playground of young men…" (pg. 51)

Heralded as one of the originators and codifiers of what we now call the 'Western', despite being a huge fan of the genre I did not expect to be moved greatly by Owen Wister's 1902 novel The Virginian. And in its first act, it is a trial; wordy and indulgent and somewhat boorish, in the way that only turn-of-the-century writing can be. I found my eyes glazing over whole passages, many written in dialect. It is sentimental and the characters do not land easily. In the early stages it is hard to gauge what the book will be about.

But the impact of this novel on the popular image of the West is all but unparalleled, even if its title and author are not well known today, and if you are a fan of Westerns you read The Virginian and feel very much at home. (Those who are currently playing the Red Dead Redemption 2 video game might note the name of one of Wister's minor characters, a Mr. Le Moyne.) All the tropes which are now old-hat – the trail dust, the code of honour, the gunfight as resolution – came from books like Wister's, and when you read the Western's Genesis they become fresh again.

But The Virginian is not solely a museum piece; after a rocky start it becomes a fiercely engaging read in its own right. There are some great scenes and set-pieces (the resolving gun duel, for example, or the heartbreaking 'Balaam and Pedro' interlude), some spicy exchanges of dialogue, and some beautiful descriptive passages and turns-of-phrase. The book's sentimentality becomes more rugged (of the frankly-my-dear-I-don't-give-a-damn variety), in no small part because its dorky narrator takes a back seat, and the romanticism is, at times, irresistible.

When the book is assessed it often gets a kicking, not only because Westerns in general get a kicking nowadays, but because of a perceived racial and classist element. But I felt my Oxford World's Classics edition overegged this point; it is unreasonable to expect an enlightened 21st-century attitude from the book, and being conditioned by Robert Shulman's Introduction to expect some reactionary screed, I was surprised how tame The Virginian was on this front. It has its opinions, to be sure, but the editor of this contemporary volume is partisan; he does not let Wister breathe and, in his introduction and endnotes, tries to prejudice the reader against him. Whilst the Oxford edition succeeds in some respects, in its determination to direct the reader towards a specific appraisal it might be the worst curatorship of a classic I have yet read.

For Wister's The Virginian was not merely the first past the post for the Western saga. Its author was not really the creator of the Western tropes, but the observer and then articulator of what the West meant as an ideal. Wister did what any writer should do: he looked at what there was, found what was lying unspoken behind it and then brought that knowledge back, whilst entertaining his audience at the same time. He put his own biases into it – and sometimes clumsily – but considering what he achieves as artwork and frame he should be forgiven that. ( )
  Mike_F | Dec 18, 2018 |
This one really surprised me and in the best kind of way. I sheepishly admit that going into this one I assumed I wouldn't like it one bit (I generally don't cotton to westerns), but despite its setting - and the fact that its main character is a cowboy, through and through - well, reader, I loved it. Excellent story, with a nice sprinkling of good side stories, and great characters, too. ( )
  electrascaife | Oct 29, 2017 |
I really enjoyed the prose in this novel. Wister narrative really draws the reader in and makes you feel like you are sitting alongside the Virginian, Shorty and the other cowboys as they travel by train or on horseback across the vast untamed West. I especially enjoyed the title character's exploration of literature via the romance. The B&N classics version I thought was an especially good presentation of the novel with plenty of criticisms that made one appreciate the novel more. ( )
  Humberto.Ferre | Sep 28, 2016 |
Lost a half star because it took me four attempts to get past the introduction, but I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. ( )
  Prop2gether | Jul 25, 2016 |
This classic is considered by many to be the first 'Western'. It certainly has most if not all the tropes now considered to be standard for that genre! The hero, whose name we never learn, is a young man of about 24 when the story opens and at that time, he has already been on his own for 10 years and has traveled and worked in most of the West.

The descriptions of life in Wyoming in the period after the Civil War (~1870s) was well drawn and the romance between the cowboy and the schoolteacher from Vermont allowed some discussion about the differences between the settled East and the "Wild West".

Overall, I liked this book more than I had expected. Even if you think Westerns aren't for you, this one is worth trying. ( )
  leslie.98 | Apr 29, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Owen Wisterprimary authorall editionscalculated
Moyers, WilliamIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Theodore Roosevelt
Some of these pages you have seen, some you have praised, one
stands new-written because you blamed it; and all, my dear critic,
beg leave to remind you of their author's changeless admiration.
First words
Some notable sight was drawing the passengers, both men and women, to the window; therefore I rose and crossed the car to see what it was.
I had stepped into a world new to me indeed, and novelties were ocurring with scarce any time to get breath between them. As to where I should sleep, I had forgotten that problem altogether in my curiosity. What was the Virginian going to do now? I began to know that the quiet of the man was volanic.
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Tantor Media

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