"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Virginian by Owen Wister

Since writing this post, I have re-read The Virginian and thought some more about it, and have written a new entry. So sorry, but please click here to read the latest version!


  1. William Sommerwerck12/30/13, 2:34 PM

    I've read "The Virginian" twice, and written a screenplay that (I believe) is much closer to what Owen Wister would have written had the book been published in 1982.

    There is a seemingly invariable progression from notoriety to unjustified affection to whitewashing. This is particularly true of Western “heroes”, including the James brothers and “Wild Bill” Hickok. Charles Goodnight is generally thought of as a decent, even “spiritual” man, but he was a murderer -- or at least let others commit his murders for him, with his approval.

    The Virginian’s generally high ethical standards have been projected on the novel itself, leading some to see it as a “Christian” work. It is anything but. The Virginian is a pagan character (combining Apollonian and Dyonisian traits). In a famous chapter, he harasses a pompous minister into leaving in a huff. And the Virginian is sexually promiscuous (until marriage). "Oh, don't go to get married again, Uncle Hughey! What's the use o' being married?"

    However comic "The Virginian" might be, it is also brutal. The scene in which Balaam (I assume the name is supposed to suggest Baal) blinds Shorty’s horse was so explicit that Roosevelt forced Wister to tone it down (though it’s still pretty gruesome). And then, of course, there’s Shorty’s murder, which every reader wants to see avenged.

    Which brings us to the morality of the gunfight with Trampas… The Virginian could have (and perhaps should have) walked away from it. But this was the West, where justice was delivered erratically, at best. Trampas isn’t someone who has merely insulted the Virginian. If somebody doesn’t do something, he will continue to commit murder and other crimes. (Matt Dillon uses a similar argument in “The Killer”.)

    Wister’s attempt to paint a not-altogether inaccurate portrait of the “real” West was largely undone by the romance between Molly and the Virginian. It isn’t plausible that an attractive young woman would head west and find romance with an incredibly handsome man’s man. Yet this romance must have been one of the principal reasons for the novel’s success. It led to the (unwarranted) stereotype of the strong, silent man who resolves the town’s problems, then marries the schoolmarm.

    Most readers ignore the story’s other romance, that between the narrator (Wister) and the Virginian (probably modeled on George West, a hunter and guide). Wister’s description of the Virginian (the paragraph starting “Leaning there against the wall was a slim young giant…”) is not merely an example of 19th-century Romantic description, but bluntly erotic, the literary equivalent of a Colt Studios photograph. It ends with him admitting that, had he been the bride, he would have preferred the Virginian to Uncle Hughey. This “confession” is made sexually unambiguous when Molly is frightened by a skunk. “…the Virginian looked at her with such a smile that, had I been a woman, it would have made me his to do what he pleased with on the spot.” It is been noted that the Virginian’s honeymoon with Molly is chaste almost beyond belief, whereas he goes on a nude camping trip with the narrator (in the deleted chapter, "Hank's Woman").

    I haven’t seem any movie of “The Virginian”. But Coop strikes me as not being at all the right actor. Randolph Scott (who was of the same “Eastern aristocracy” as the Virginian) or Sam Eliot would have been far-better choices. Eliot, in particular, has the Virginian’s drop-dead good looks. It’s surprising no one did a remake with either.

  2. What an interesting comment, William. Thank you very much.
    I'd love to read your screenplay.
    I really like the idea of the Virginian as a pagan and of course there is something Nietzschean about him, Apollonian and Dyonisian both. Seeing off a pompous minister doesn't alone put him in that category and I know of several ministers who ought to be seen off but still, you are right, he isn't exactly a conventional Christian...
    The whole notion of the showdown-gunfight, so central to the Western myth, is of course of distinctly dubious morality. But I don't think people read or watch Westerns for morality. It's the thrill, even in a pulp paperback or B movie. It's so black & white. the bad guy gets his. Of course, it's the reader, through the 'hero' who decides who's bad but we don't go in for subtlety here. Just Colts.
    At the turn of the last century prose that to modern eyes reads as distinctly homoerotic passed as quite normal. I too noticed the tone of the narrator's idlozation of the Virginian. But it seemd perfectly acceptable then. I totally agree that Randolph Scott, with his willowy, hetero/homosexual appeal, would have been an ideal Virginian. The great Western that never was. He did in fact coach Coop in Virginian accent on the set of the 1929 talkie.
    Not so sure about Sam!!
    Happy New Year.