The Virginian

June 1, 2012

So, The Virginian is apparently the first proper western, if we’re not counting pulps — and apparently we’re not. It’s also awfully good.

Usually, when I try to read westerns, the protagonist shoots someone, or semi-accidentally kills a horse, or somehow makes an enemy of someone — probably someone with a mustache — over a poker game, and then I realize I’m only two chapters in and give up.

The hero of The Virginian actually does make an enemy over a poker game in the early chapters, and, since all of those other westerns are probably imitating this one, I guess I could blame Owen Wister for all those books I couldn’t finish. It seems silly, though, to blame someone for being better than his imitators.

Not that they really imitated him that closely, as far as I can tell from the first couple of chapters of maybe three books — clearly I’ve spent a lot of time on this. The Virginian isn’t really what I expected, which was an adventure story. I mean, sure, there are adventures, but they’re not the subject of the book. Instead, it’s about a person, sort of, and more than that, about a place and a time. And when you look at it like that, it makes sense that the book is slow paced and meandering. The Virginian doesn’t need to be carefully structured and tightly plotted. It is, though. What seems scattered at first — The unnamed narrator’s meeting with the unnamed protagonist, the new schoolteacher from Vermont, the Virginian’s old friend Steve and new enemy Trampas, the peculiar behavior of a chicken — is actually really cleverly woven together. All these storylines — the clashes between the Virginian and Trampas, the capabilities of Shorty, the problem of cattle theft and the changing face of Wyoming, etc. — reflect and depend on each other. It’s pretty cool.

Some parts of the book are better then others. There are bits that think they’re funnier than they are, bits that are boring, and bits that are dissatisfying —  I’d include most of the romance storyline under that heading, mostly because having a man pester a girl until she gives in is about as unromantic as courtship gets. But there are also bits that are kind of transcendent. The obligatory accidentally-on-purpose horse-killing, for example, is horrifying and upsetting and completely gripping. And I don’t want to give anything away, but everything pertaining to the hanging of the two cattle thieves is perfect.

I can nitpick all I want, and there’s a lot of material for it, but mostly this is just a really good book. Everything balances out, and the not-so-great bits are made up for by that bits that are completely wonderful. I suspect I’m still never going to be all that into westerns, but it’s nice to know the genre started off so well.



  1. Enjoyed your comments on THE VIRGINIAN. The meandering structure of the novel is partly from the fact that parts of it originated as stand-alone pieces, and Wister knitted them together, not always seamlessly. The presence and absence of the narrator is one problem he didn’t solve.

    There is also, by the way, a problem with the scene where the horse thieves are hanged. By the code of the West, a man would not have been expected to participate in the hanging of a friend. Loyalty to a friend came before punishment for a crime.

    THE VIRGINIAN isn’t really the first western. There were earlier writers working with the same material, including Wister himself. You can say that his was the first mainstream bestseller western, and its success produced a number of imitators. Finally, with the emergence of western movies, the formulaic genre was born.

    • I think I had read that parts of the book had been published separately, and, while it’s not seamless, I think the seams might add more than they detract from it — even the narrator randomly showing up and disappearing.

      Obviously I’m not that familiar with westerns of any kind — except maybe spaghetti westerns — so I appreciate the information about the genre. I’m definitely not sorry Wister got the hanging of the cattle thieves wrong, though — it may not be historically accurate, but the story would lose so much if that sequence weren’t there.

  2. The only western I’ve ever read is 3:10 to Yuma, and that was for a paper. For some reason they just don’t appeal to me, but maybe I should give them a try.

    • I think this is a liking the genre versus liking certain books in the genre thing — The Virginian is a good book and — presumably — a good western. The genre doesn’t appeal to me that much either, but it’s nice not to be shut out of it entirely.

  3. Try “The Sheriff of Badger” by George Pattullo. It’s on Google Books and also at Project Gutenberg.

    I think the last few paragraphs of chapter 27 of “The Virginian,” starting with “I promised you should love me,” he sternly interrupted. “Promised that to myself. I have broken that word,” when he is trying to tell her that he will stop bothering her, is just about one of the most romantic things I’ve ever read.

    • I’ve put in on my TBR list.

      I like that passage a lot, too — it kind of redeems all that’s gone before. Earlier on I feel like his courtship is at her expense.

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