The Virginian

Bob Roman’s notes on a novel.


Given that The Virginian by Owen Wister was a runaway best-seller way back in 1902 and has since been made into a play, four movies, a TV series, a TV movie, and a video: well, a review would be somewhat redundant. But here are some thoughts on the novel regardless. First of all, if I were writing a review, I would say: I like this book, in spite of myself, and you will too. Whether you like westerns or not, this is the one western that you ought to read. You can ignore all the others, if you wish, for this is the ur-western that distills all of that genre before and after. Voilà! My review. Now for the thoughts:

I picked up the book as part of my Geezer Downsizing Project and could not wait to re-read it. My particular copy is a paperback product of TOR, a publisher better known for its science fiction and fantasy titles. But the book is also in the public domain and is available online through Project Gutenberg for free.

When I first read the book some years ago, I was captivated within the first few pages. The story opens with the narrator on a train to Medicine Bow, Wyoming, just about to arrive there but parked just outside the station for the locomotive to take on water… already six hours behind schedule. This isn’t AMTRAK, friends, but “the more things change…”

Worse yet, when the narrator alights from the train, he discovers:

“My baggage was lost; it had not come on my train; it was adrift somewhere back in the two thousand miles that lay behind me. And by way of comfort, the baggage-man remarked that passengers often got astray from their trunks, but the trunks mostly found them after a while.”

If you have ever waited and waited with growing anxiety at an airport baggage claim, you can’t hardly not identify with this. “The more things change…”

I also looked forward to re-reading some very nice writing. Alas, most of it did not live up to my memory of the specific passages, though they were not bad, for example:

“…But I came upon him one morning in Colonel Cyrus Jones’s eating palace.

“Did you know the palace? It stood in Omaha, near the trains, and it was ten years old (which is middle-aged in Omaha) when I first saw it. It was a shell of wood, painted with golden emblems – the steamboat, the eagle, the Yosemite – and a live bear ate gratuities at its entrance. Weather permitting, it opened upon the world as a stage upon the audience. You sat in Omaha’s whole sight and dined, while Omaha’s dust came and settled upon the refreshments. It is gone the way of the Indian and the buffalo, for the West is growing old. You should have seen the palace and sat there. In front of you passed rainbows of men – Chinese, Indian chiefs, Africans, General Miles, younger sons, Austrian nobility, wide females in pink. Our continent drained prismatically through Omaha once.”

Or another example:

“…We descended in the chill silence, while the mushroom rocks grew far and the somber woods approached. By a stream we got off where two banks sheltered us; for a bleak wind cut down over the crags now and then, making the pines send out a great note through the basin, like breakers in a heavy sea.”

Wister wrote well enough in general, but there was far less writing of this quality in the book than I had remembered.

Wister constructed his story as a series of interlocked anecdotes, some humorous, some dramatic, some serve as parables for a sort of libertarianism. The humor tends to be very 19th Century. There are straight-faced reversals or understatements (e.g., “but the trunks mostly found them after a while.”) There are plenty of the 19th Century version of situation comedy, where the naive are hoodwinked or manipulated to other’s advantage. This manner of humor was Mark Twain’s forte, and Wister is not bad at it either. This is particularly interesting as, unlike Twain, Wister’s victims are typically folks from back East, newcomers to the West. Humor is sometimes used as a means of establishing hierarchy, and for Wister, east of the Mississippi, or maybe even the Missouri, is clearly inferior.

Wister’s libertarianism is mostly unexceptional minarchist. I don’t mean to be all Marxian here, but that is hardly surprising. Wister came from an upper middle class family in Philadelphia with all manner of connections. Notably, Teddy Roosevelt was a buddy. That may not sound very “libertarian” except in the most general way, but Wister was also no friend of Franklin Roosevelt or the New Deal later on.

Wister’s friendship with Teddy Roosevelt also speaks to a particular aspect of Wister’s philosophy. Wister shared with Roosevelt a view that “a new “American race” (ethnic group) had emerged from the heroic wilderness hunters and Indian fighters, acting on the frontier with little government help.” (Wikipedia)

Wister links this with a favorite libertarian trope, merit. He has the Virginian himself ruminate:

“…But if you go to try a thing on in this Western country, you’ve got to do it well. You’ve got to deal cyards well; you’ve got to steal well; and if you claim to be quick with your gun, you must be quick, for you’re a public temptation and some man will not resist trying to prove he is the quicker. You must break all the Commandments well in this Western country…”

And it stands to reason, I suppose, that natural selection will therefore make us great. It’s still a common enough notion: Consider all the present day dreary troll comments about “cleaning the gene pool.” Merit continues to have a vise grip on the American culture, and I suppose that would not be such a bad thing except that it is so easy to ignore just how slippery and self-serving a concept it can be in practice.

You know, it’s probably a mistake to describe natural selection as “survival of the fittest.” Stated that way, survival sounds very much like a reward for merit, a prize for “fitness.” In truth, survival defines fitness and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about merit. The race as often goes to the faster rather than the fastest.

But Wister is really pretty militant about this. Earlier in the book, he has the narrator spout off:

“All America is divided into two classes – the quality and the equality. The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both will be with us until our women bear nothing but kings.

“It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequality of man. For by it we abolished cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men 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…”

Now stop and think about all the different ways in which people use the term “democracy.” If you have any sense, you’ll not ever again assume that “democracy” means what you might think it does unless the person using the term elaborates. Democracy is, to be philosophical about it, a “contested concept,” meaning very different things depending on context, including the identity of the person using it.

It’s fortunate that Wister doesn’t rant like this very often or for very long… unlike like some books… Atlas Shrugged, for example. But another unfortunate and lengthy exposition concerns lynching. Well, it couldn’t be a western without a necktie party, could it? The issue surely touches a nerve for Wister.

The individuals lynched in the novel are cattle rustlers and horse thieves. The lynching in The Virginian sets up a series of conflicts, dramas, in the last third of the book. One of the prime organizers of the necktie party was the Virginian himself and one of the individuals lynched was the Virginian’s erstwhile best friend. Oh woe! It also sets up a conflict between the Virginian and the woman he seeks to wed. She’s the town’s school teacher and a New England Yankee to boot. The necessity of this murder escapes her, of course, and the Virginian’s employer, Judge Henry, must justify it to her in the Virginian’s absence and explain how it is not at all anything like a lynching in the South. Henry explains:

“…I see no likeness in principle whatever between burning Southern negroes in public and hanging Wyoming horse-thieves in private. I consider the burning a proof that the South is barbarous, and the hanging a proof that Wyoming is determined to become civilized. We do not torture our criminals when we lynch them. We do not invite spectators to enjoy their death agony…”

Even granting Judge’s point, this isn’t quite enough for Miss Molly the school-marm: “Both defy law and order.”

Judge Henry replies that the government, including the courts, derive their authority from individual citizens. When the courts, in particular the juries, are incapable of holding horse-thieves accountable, why then:

“…he must take justice back into his own hands where it was once at the beginning of all things. Call this primitive, if you will. But so far from being a defiance of the law, it is an assertion of it – the fundamental assertion of self-governing men, upon whom our whole social fabric is based.”

One step further and you’ve become a member of the “sovereign citizen” movement. But really, just how different is this from Southern lynching? Consider this apology for the KKK published in the New York World:

“It may not be amiss to give here a short sketch of the celebrated Ku-Klux Klan, which has recently become such a bug-bear to Radical papers and politicians. The fraternity originated in East Tennessee, where the conquered rebels, finding themselves subjected to violence and oppression, and unprotected in person, life, or property by the established authorities, resolved to take the law into their own hands, and redress their own wrongs.” New York World, Wednesday, January 13, 1869, Page 10

It’s much the same argument, Judge Henry.

Oh, and that gift of privacy so nobly granted the Wyoming victims? There’s a story to that as well, involving some of Wister’s buddies, that really makes “privacy” seem more than a little self-serving.

The theft of horses and beeves was a real problem in Montana and Wyoming in the late 1870s and 1880s It was a major item on the agenda of the 1884 meeting of the Montana Stock Growers Association. The Association was led by a “soft spoken gentleman from Virginia, Granville Stuart.” When the meeting discussed the problem, Teddy Roosevelt, then a rancher himself, was in favor of a frontal assault on the miscreants wherever they gathered. Teddy had visions of charging San Juan Hill even then, apparently. The meeting very sensibly turned down Teddy’s fantasy on the grounds of really poor optics, possible casualties among the “good guys” and possible criminal liabilities. (So much for the feeble state, Judge Henry!)

But as Dee Brown describes it in The American West:

“…As soon as the spring roundup was ended, he [Stuart] called a meeting of fourteen of the most closed-mouthed cattlemen in the Northwest. They met secretly at his ranch, and called themselves the Vigilance Committee.

“In a few weeks they were known as Stuart’s Stranglers. The Stranglers worked methodically. When a stock thief became known, he was tracked down, captured, and quietly hanged. A simple placard labeled “Horse Thief” or “Cattle Thief” was always left fastened to each victim’s clothes. The Northwestern newspapers, aware of what was happening, kept almost as silent as the Stranglers. The Mineral Argus of Maiden, Montana, commented laconically: ‘Eastern Montana is rapidly reducing the number of horse thieves.’” (page 327)

One is tempted to think that Granville Stuart was a partial model for Wister’s Virginian. Not being a scholar, I haven’t explored the issue.

Judge Henry might protest that Western lynching was still different because Southern lynching was aimed at keeping negroes in their place. He might go on to mutter something about “natural law.” Well, being a fictional character, we might have Judge Henry say anything at all. But keeping a group in its place was likely one of the aims of the Stranglers as well.

Owen Wister’s introduction to my edition of The Virginian is basically a long homage to the cowboy, that seed crystal of the “new American race.” But cowboys were agricultural labor. They were disposable people, not quite to the degree that B. Traven’s Indians were in March to the Monteria because (typically) the social distance between employer and employee was far less in the West. But it is interesting that the stereotypical cowboy end of trail blowout is awfully similar to the end of contract behavior described by Traven. And in both instances, it left the worker in a position where going back to the boss with hat in hand was the easier option.

Prior to the barbed wire fencing of the Plains, entry into the cattle industry was easy enough to be at least plausible to a cowboy. Horses and beeves loose and unbranded on the range were fair game to be claimed by anyone who rounded them up. And it should be noted that “legit” ranching operations were not always above a little pilfering, brand smudging and cattle laundering. The line between “good guys” and “bad” was exceedingly broad and fuzzy.

But short of any aspirations, cowboys were simply semi-skilled farm hands. As Mark A. Lause described it in his article “The Cowboy Class Wars”:

“Cowboys only had real power during the spring cattle drive, that fleeting moment when employers desperately need labor, and quickly: ranches couldn’t find qualified replacements on such short notice. If the cowboys stuck together, they could impose their terms. But the longer the strike lasted, the more precarious their position would become.

“As migratory workers, cowboys followed the work where it took them and carried their experience and ideas with them. From 1884 to 1886, they went on strike from New Mexico to Wyoming. Employers used everything from blacklisting to armed regulators to try to control their workforce.”

The fencing of the Plains reduced the cowboy’s bargaining position, eliminating that strategic moment of employer need, while at the same time radically reducing the need for labor. Given the customarily loose lines around property and the increasingly uncertain prospects for cowboy employment, Mr. Stuart and Mr. Roosevelt wouldn’t miss a few head of cattle, would they?* Apparently they would, but apparently most juries out West in the 1880s were not impressed enough to convict.

Did Stuart’s Stranglers murder thieves or troublemakers? As no one kept a complete list, never mind body count of victims, it could easily have been both.** Regardless, as Clyde Milner II and Carol O’Connor note in As Big as the West, their biography of Stuart:

“…In terms of the horse thieves, the Stranglers targeted a lower-class, indeed a working-class population. Some of these people were mixed-race, and they might live near criminals, shelter criminals, or even be criminals. It little mattered. The Stranglers rode for the largest cattle owners and thus represented the forces of social and business domination. They served as killers for the landed gentry and their capitalist partners…”

As such, the Stranglers were not that different than the KKK or the Mississippi White Citizens Councils or the Vigilance Committees of various California cities or today’s border patrols and “militia movements.” Welcome to the grand American tradition of death squads.

History, it is said, is written by the victors, and The Virginian is Owen Wister’s contribution to our country’s mythology. It is a fantasy that enthralls much of America even today: the little man made big by a gun, the “justice” of stand your ground, the plain and forthright meaning of being a man, the self-righteous and self-serving hegemony of mob violence. By golly, who wouldn’t yearn for the collapse of civilization just so you could build your own little dukedom on the range?

Sorry. I’d just as soon leave it to fantasy. And so should you.

* Incidentally, agricultural theft is still an issue though more concentrated on high value crops. You may have seen news reports about avocados, for example, or various nut crops. One can easily imagine this becoming more of a problem as the century progresses, with maybe a return to vigilantism? That would be a very bad leading indicator.

** The Knights of Labor did organize cowboys, but the accounts I’ve run across are down Texas way. In Montana, the Knights seem to have been mostly involved with the mining industry, most especially around Butte. As Milner and O’Connor suggest, thieves (loosely defined as any suspicious and marginal character regardless of evidence) may have been the Strangler’s first objective in a longer game of hegemony, right when the insurgent Populist movement was just beginning to smolder. There were, incidentally, any number of vigilance committees aimed at horse thieves who, rather than lynching them, were perfectly happy to turn their victims over to law enforcement for trial.

Author: rmichaelroman

... whatever ...

5 thoughts on “The Virginian”

  1. Wow. This is one of the best posts I’ve read all year. From top to bottom worth reading, but I’d also like to say I like the line: “The race as often goes to the faster rather than the fastest.”

    Liked by 1 person

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