Reading The Virginian in the New West

Reading The Virginian in the New West

Reading The Virginian in the New West

Reading The Virginian in the New West

Synopsis

Although the origins of the western are as old as colonial westward expansion, it was Owen Wister's novel The Virginian, published in 1902, that established most of the now-familiar conventions of the genre. On the heels of the classic western's centennial, this collection of essays both re-examines the text of The Virginian and uses Wister's novel as a lens for studying what the next century of western writing and reading will bring. The contributors address Wister's life and travels, the novel's influence on and handling of gender and race issues, and its illustrations and various retellings on stage, film, and television as points of departure for speculations about the "new West"- as indeed Wister himself does at the end of the novel. The contributors reconsider the novel's textual complexity and investigate The Virginian's role in American literary and cultural history. Together their essays represent a new western literary studies, comparable to the new western history.

Excerpt

Melody Graulich

Owen Wister’s The Virginian, published in 1902, ends with a New Western view into the twentieth century. the Virginian is no longer a prankplaying cowboy but the owner of a coal mine, conveniently serviced by a railroad line, and the West is maturing from the playground of young men that Wister documented in his earlier novel, Lin McLean, and getting down to the serious business of resource extraction, labor management, irrigation projects, competition for markets, railroad monopolies, foreign investment, Los Angeles real estate speculation, “cheap foreign” labor, and tourism, all mentioned in the text. Most Indian tribes have been herded onto reservations, where beef contracts provide another source of capital for enterprising entrepreneurs; agents “allow” some Crow off the reservation to sell “painted bows and arrows” to tourists, while the artistic productions of southwestern tribes, like Molly’s Navajo blanket, are already being marketed beyond the region by Indian traders. Other artifacts tell the same story: Molly carries her miniature portrait of her grandmother from East to West; she carries a photograph of her cowboy lover from West to East. Cattle are shipped to Omaha and packed into cans that are then shipped back to litter the Wyoming landscape.

Yet while Wister closed his frontier novel looking forward to a New West, The Virginian ironically initiated a backward-looking tradition, the formula western, as repeating – and perhaps as deadly – as the Winchester rifle. While the Virginian’s gunfight against Trampas is presumably his only one, ending a period in his life and in the West, I well remember Saturday nights in the 1950s, black-and-white images flickering behind most suburban windows, when, at precisely eight o’clock, week after week, Mar-

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